Where are Our Children Safe, Now That Homes, Schools, and Temples are Ruled Out?

Social Commentary

Where are Our Children Safe, Now That Homes, Schools, and Temples are Ruled Out?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Seven months. That’s how long it took before the sexual abuse and rape of an 11-year-old in an upscale Chennai apartment complex came to light. The shocking details of the incident only emerged after the victim’s sister noticed marks on her body, bringing the cycle of assault, blackmail, and intimidation to an end. Seventeen people have been arrested including the building’s security guard, lift operator, plumber, and electrician.

Once again, India is left speechless by a horrific assault on a minor.

This has been a horrendous year for India’s child safety record. In January, an eight-year-old was held captive, inside a temple in Kathua in Jammu & Kashmir. She was sedated and sexually assaulted for days, before being murdered by her rapists. The story shares chilling similarities with what the Chennai horror – a minor victim, a group of abusers, an extended period of abuse, and perhaps most shockingly, the supposed safety and sanctity of the sites where the rapes took place.

We’d assume a private housing complex and a public temple should be safe spaces, where children can be children. But statistics tell us a different story. According to a 2007 study conducted by India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, 53 per cent of children surveyed said they’d been subjected to some form of sexual abuse, reports the BBC. Most of the abusers are known to the children – relatives, parents, school-teachers, neighbours, and in the case of the Chennai survivor, the men she probably saw every day.

What will it take for us to ensure our children’s safety? Let’s start with first acknowledging that there’s a massive problem instead of slipping into denial mode as we usually do.

Despite the introduction of harsher laws against rape such as the death penalty, the numbers keep rising.

Earlier this year, a survey by the Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most unsafe country in the world for women. The government response, specifically from the Women and Child Development Ministry, was to dissemble and discredit the survey. As if any lip service performed as damage control can mitigate the fact that India has a huge problem with rape: Nearly 40,000 rapes were reported in the country in just one year – 2016 – according the National Crime Records Bureau. The same NCRB report also states that four out of 10 reported rape cases, that’s 40 per cent, involve children as victims. A child is sexually abused every 15 minutes in India.

An NYT essay titled “Surviving Child Sexual Abuse” points out, “Childhood sexual abuse is a crime of access. An abuser needs access to the child, often without suspicion, to conduct the assault with the hope of not being caught.”

And access is easier in what we consider safe spaces, like our homes, a school, a temple. But these “safe” spaces – even safe public places – don’t belong to women and children the same way they do to men. That’s why an eight-year-old in Mandsaur, MP could be abducted while waiting outside her school by two men, who raped her before slitting her throat and leaving her to die. In Patna, Bihar, predators lurked within the school walls. Earlier this month, police made six arrests, including three students, two teachers, and even the school principal, in connection with multiple instances of raping a teenage girl who studied at the school.

It’s impossible to compile a comprehensive list of similar incidents from across the country, but one thing is clear. Despite the introduction of harsher laws against rape such as the death penalty, the numbers keep rising. It’s simple enough to see, if you’ve had your eyes even half open over the last seven months.

In our country, a court case can last longer than a child’s innocence. There still hasn’t been a verdict in the Kathua case, because India’s track record for convictions is abysmal. One can only hope that the Chennai case will be swiftly tried. In this bleak scenario, even the “stay safe” warning we give to our children feels empty – for it no longer seems like an option.

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