The parents of the murdered 7-year-old boy had not yet dried their tears before yet another child fell victim to a rapist. The former was studying at Ryan International School in Gurugram while the latter was a five-year-old girl studying in a Delhi school. A month before this, a four-year-old girl in a school in Mumbai's Malad was allegedly raped by a peon.
The cases make for sordid news. Consider then that many more numbers go unreported, almost 90 percent. It is easy to understand the unease of parents packing off children to school and anganwadis daily. Will it be my child next? There is no safety in gender anymore. Children of either sex are vulnerable targets.
In 2015, India recorded more than 10,000 cases of rapes on minors, according to the National Crimes Record Data. In fact, a child under 16 is raped every 155 minutes, a child under 10 every 13 hours, shows data from the government and Unicef.
Television talk shows have seen heated discussions on how to make schools safe and what constitutes the schools' responsibility. Some have been vouching for technology as the saviour while others insist that societal change is called for.
But while technology in terms of apps and devices may help keep an eye on the child's safety, one wonders about the millions who will not be able to afford such luxuries, whose children are even more vulnerable to prowling rapists. Unless one addresses the causes behind such a dastardly act, it would simply be a matter of immediate reaction. After all, even technology is not tamper-proof.
To begin with, it may be relevant to look at why child rapes are on the rise. Of course, it is contended that most of today's adults have been subjected to some form of sexual abuse as a child. But going by the premise of news reportage, there is definitely a rise in these crimes. There are two contributing factors to child abuse. One, the delay in meting out justice and two, the behaviour/attitude behind such a heinous act.
It was almost three years back in July 2014 that the rape of a six-year-old girl at an elite school in Bengaluru caught the nation's attention. Today the three accused, gym instructors at the Vibgyor High School, are all out on bail and the trial is yet to begin, apparently due to witnesses yet to be tracked and a paucity of lawyers. (Ironically the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act calls for such abuse cases to be tried by a special court within a year!)
This sends out the wrong signal to offenders that they can get away. Children are soft targets, often not even knowing what has happened to them, let alone being able to speak out. It is this shield that is causing more sexual offenders to train their perverse acts on children, away from the more traditional targets (women).
The anguished cry from most people on hearing reports of child abuse is often the same. 'How can they do this to a child?' While not condoning the rape of a woman, the rape of a child is unbearable for most of us. And most of us have no second thoughts on what devilish fiends the perpetrators are.
But if one were to go by the research finding of a doctorate student, rapists are no monsters! An Indian PhD student, Madhumita Pandey, who has been interviewing convicted rapists lodged in the Tihar jail has shocked readers with her observation in the Washington Post. "When you talk to them you realise these are not extraordinary men, they are really ordinary. What they have done is because of upbringing and thought process," she writes.
She goes on to say that many of the rapists "do not realise what they have done is rape". They do not know what consent is, she notes.
The hint here is that the concept of consent is alien to many of our men, and is one of the root causes of rape per se. Unlike what Amitabh Bachchan as the lawyer underlines in the popular Bollywood movie 'Pink', boys (and men) must stop when a woman says 'No', whoever she be, girlfriend, wife or sex worker!
That brings us to the shocking disclaimer from no less than the apex court this year when it said that marital rape cannot be considered as a criminal act. In debates on child marriage and marital rape, the Supreme Court has tended to ignore the concept of consent.
In the name of tradition, and protection of men from women, even the law seems shaky. Exception 2 of Section 375 of the IPC states that sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife is not rape as long as the woman is not under 15 years of age. So, while a man is said to commit rape if he has sexual intercourse with a woman when she is under 18 years of age as per the Pocso Act, this is not the case if he is married to her! A clear proof of patriarchy that runs deep through the system.
But can child rape be lumped under a non-recognition of consent? How can a man who rapes a five-year-old profess not to be 'aware' of what he is doing (as cited in one of the cases interviewed by Pandey)?
Where rapes on partners and other women have been ascribed to an assertion of masculinity, this cannot be the same in child rape. The level of brutality has left psychologists perplexed. Experts believe that a child offender is more of a compulsive abuser and if left free can continue with his crime. Besides punishment in jail, they also need treatment to prevent further crimes, they aver.
Often these people come with a history of violence in their upbringing as also a dysfunctional family. Experts have pointed to a cycle of violence where a woman subjected to violence at the hand of the man, in turn takes the stick to the child. The victim/prey becomes desensitised to violence and as an adult takes on the role of a predator. In this sense even child abuse becomes a statement of power, that of a bully who has been bullied. Along with a culture which continues to project women and girls as sex objects, and the total helplessness of a child, the perpetrator becomes inured to child abuse.
According to Dr Nimish G Desai, Director of the Institute of Human behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), one of the reasons could be the rapid transitional phase in our societies that are leap-frogging from traditional to post-modern. In a NDTV report, he notes how anonymity of living in an urban megapolis with lax policing and judicial deterrent provides an armour for the criminal.
With millions still living below the poverty line, in families that often lack emotional bonding, it is a Himalayan task to transform society overnight. For now the best solutions to prevent child abuse would be to tighten up vigil and educate the child on the 'good touch-bad touch' level.
As parents and citizens, it becomes our duty to be extra vigilant and pro-active. Whether it be the background checks we conduct on people we hire; or in protesting as part of society and demanding justice, not merely when it affects us; in working towards a system that is truly gender equitable and free of violence, there is need for everyone to be involved in the long haul.