Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The wronger wrong

“yaarigu helodu beda, summage namma paatigey erona. naaley yaarigunu nenupu iralla, bidu” (No need to tell anyone, let’s stick to going about our business. Tomorrow, no one will remember this, leave it), was one of the least agonizing shows of strength extended to the distraught mother of a four year old girl-child, violated by the local stud of their slum. Parallely, Times of India carried a terrible account of male child abuse left unattended for dacades!

Children constitute 42% of India’s population and their safety is paramount to the health of our nation. But in spite of recent legal reforms that criminalise not only sexual assault and its abetment but also any indulgence in its idea – like child pornography – each day of 2015, recorded eight child sexual abuse cases on average, with only 2.5% ending in convictions. Sure, this alarming trend is not unique to any country in the world and it is not an unknown phenomenon either (for worse statistics, just look at America and beyond), it is becoming increasingly frightening. Why? Because when once an abuser could get away scot-free, today, awareness is higher than it has ever been, children will ‘tell’, plenty will stand in solidarity, the perpetrator has every chance of being found out … yet these crimes abound and victims are left groping for succor. We see it, we hear of it. Is anyone listening?

The POCSO (Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences) Act of 2012 clearly identifies the significance of adults ‘in a position of authority and trust’ and their responsibility and liability in an environment involving children. But in the same environment, there is also the Nirbhaya rapist who has not only walked free, but has been granted the full juvenile entitlement of rehabilitation and anonymity.

Irrespective of this, we are a society that believes and relies on the goodness of mankind, plans for its children’s future and is dependent on third party institutions to nurture their most precious assets. We are also a society that is finally willing to wriggle out of its strangulating veils of perceived honour. So, what exactly is wrong? 

Decoding the criminal mind
Prying into the cognitive wiring of a criminal, Sujatha Krishnan, a behavioral psychologist with 27 years of extensive clinical experience, takes us into the cortical anomalies of the deviant mind. “Brain scans of criminals show marked differences in metabolic activity in different parts of the brain. Further, there is a significant reduction in the development of the prefontal cortex predisposing a person to crime and violence. A weak lymbic system can generate primal emotions like anger and violent lust, impulsiveness, addiction to risk and an overall lack of self-control”. 

She goes on to explain how this aberrant cognition becomes the new natural in an abusive mind. “The human brain contains networks that activate different processing streams - nurturing emotions are aroused when a child’s picture is seen and mating instincts when the picture of an adult is viewed. In pedophiles, the neural circuitry between the sexual and nurturing instincts get mixed up and sexual emotions are aroused when they see children”. Frightening!

Commonsense perceptions reveal a realm of insecurity, inadequacy and insatiable needs for gratification. But when such needs becomes permanent, we have a problem that even commonsense cannot fathom. 

Throwing light on society as a creator of the abuser, psychoanalyst, Prathitha Gangadharan, says, "The process of the creation of bullies which begins at home by their caretakers needs to be looked into from a Social Engineering point of view. Everyone wants attention and negative attention is better than no attention - this is theory. These abusers got attention only when they were disruptive. More vicious the abuse, more vicious their childhood must have been. We have enough laws and that is the easier part. But do we have enough people looking into the long-drawn and painful creation process that takes time to show? Can we catch them young and make sure their twisted minds are set right before they become parents?"

So, pedophilia is an illness. That’s established. But till it is clinically diagnosed and cured, should this illness become the bane of an unsuspecting childhood, uncomfortably close to our edge of trust and blind faith?

Two wrongs in the land of honour
We are educators here, law enforcers and care givers. We are those hands that hold them, those kisses and cuddles of comfort that these little angels look to when their balloon flies away. 

Yet, when the unimaginable happens, our responses remain core to an overwhelming sense of shame and the much maligned perception of honourBut what about the honour of the unsuspecting child who is rarely even old enough to comprehend the magnitude of what has been endured? How can an abused child accept its cruel reality?

And because it is for our children, ‘we’ will effect the best cover-up. Denial cannot be wronger than the wrong already committed, right? Think again.

Sense, in the time of sensitivity 
The ugly effects of abuse carry deep into adulthood, affecting sociability and future family life. But it is convenient to hide the inconvenient truth. And our society cultivates this debility.

In a candid discussion with a close friend placed high in corporate echelons today and someone known and loved as a thorough and dependable gentleman, it transpired that abuse by his lady music teacher when he was ten years of age, marked the end of his musical journey. Worse, he developed a hatred for music ever since. Why did he not tell anyone? Well, who was going to believe him and what good would come off it? Why does he not want to be named today in this article? I think we can all understand how it would risk his reputation as a man of few words and high respectability.

Nonetheless, not everything is dark and depressing. If we now teach our children the difference between safe and unsafe touch, we are ourselves trying hard to break free from archaic definitions of maryaada. While we teach our cherubs to be cautious of charming, over-zealous and ultra-friendly smooth operators, we are also opening our eyes to threats and eliminating them from our safety zones. We are making a concentrated effort now, to make our children secure and comfortable with their sexuality, as much as we are getting comfortable with conversations that were, hitherto, taboo.

All good tidings, but we must also remember that there is a fine line separating caution from paranoia. We need to be aware, but we also need to be confident. And that only comes from unconditional support. I was too young to realise that it was dirty or that I was being abused when I was groped in the supermarket. But my mum had trained me in kinds of touch and I followed her instructions implicitly.  Secondly, we are very open at home even about things that are generally spoken of in a hush-hush manner. I am not marred by the incident and I always carry a doe or pepper spray with me which I will not hesitate to use if I sense danger”, says a chirpy Kalyani, aged 15 yrs.

Scaffolding a secure network
Enfold, an NGO focused on child safety, awareness and rehabilitation, works closely with academia, corporate, medical and law enforcement agencies together with parents and children, to address this issue from ground zero. Enfold’s collaborations with Dr Shekhar Sheshadri, professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NIMHANS, since 2002, have resulted in robust, value-based and self-actuated processes that are sound in child psychology and can provide support to children as young as 1st graders. 

Dr Sangeeta Saksena and Dr Shaibya Saldanha, founders of Enfold, define the wholistic approach that their NGO follows, from training police and medical agencies, to mentoring every little aspect of trauma management. “Together with UNICEF and other child protection groups like APSA, Enfold is on the expert committee formulating the Child Protection Policy (CPP) for the government. Focused primarily on child sexual safety, Enfold is also on the committee set up by the Departments of Home, to submit recommendations to revise certain laws pertaining to crimes against women and children. Once these recommendations have been adopted by the Government of Karnataka, all schools will mandatorily have a CPP unit with relevant representatives, conforming with the POCSO Act”, informs Dr Saksena. / creative:
Though child protection legislation and abuse management are evolving in India, local administration poses its own challenges. Even today, despite laws to guide them, most police stations provide little privacy to victims who feel chastised when they walk in to lodge a complaint or report a crime. Insult added to injury, victims find it hard to trust anybody.

Enfold’s unparalleled experience across age groups, long-standing reputation on the field and wide array of dedicated partnerships come as kind respite in this drought of abject apathy. If life rests on hope, Enfold's Safe Neighbourhood Project under the Neighbourhood Improvement Partnership has validated their efforts - the drive recorded a hearteningly keen participation by local police stations, anganwadis and nursing homes. 

It cannot be easy to bring stakeholders together against a sea of naysayers. Dr Saldanha makes a strong case when she places the blame squarely on the “whimsical attitude” of the system. Citing many examples, she commends the solidarity among “like-minded groups like Childline India Foundation, Bosco, APSA, Fedina and others who work with Enfold, as and when the situation demands, influencing government action on policies and efficient management of trauma”. Also, the remorseless aspect of credit and blame in any society, brings its own set of pitfalls into even sensitive matters. “There are very few of us working in the area of child abuse, so it is hard to step on toes”, she says matter-of-factly, when asked about Enfold’s success in the wake of others who have stumbled over the years.

Home and away
If the political clan fosters saccharine sycophancy, the malady of bureaucracy is that it is becoming increasingly lopsided against the common man who has been pushed further and further away from the very systems set up to serve that common man. While this imbalance becomes insufferable by the day, child safety remains a tough call and trauma management, tougher still. A collaborative and well-equipped support system that is wide-spread and ready to act, is the only effective deterrent to perpetrators.

As a working parent, I am unable to be physically present with my child many times. To ensure that my supervision does not lag, I have ensured that my child’s environment is sanitised. He has strict timings of play and homecoming. I encourage him to play in the open and discourage him from playing in someone’s house without my permission. If, due to my erratic schedule, I am unable to receive him at home, I have a trusted neighbor he can wait with, until either my husband or I return – this is strictly the exception and not the norm. For other times, I rely on the loyalty of my house-help who dotes on him. Beyond that, my son has the confidence that he can come to us with anything and I have the confidence that he will tell us anything that worries him. We listen to him attentively and, I think, that is the key”, says Dr Kanti Shetty, a prominent plastic surgeon in the city.  

With girls and boys equally susceptible, parents are worried, and rightly so. In the business of keeping others’ children safe during the major part of the working day, schools and other institutions cannot take things lightly either. “The school has appointed a lady attender who will survey the entire premises including bathrooms, during school hours. They do a good deal of checks at pick-up and drop times and every parent or guardian has to provide an ID card given by the school before the child is allowed to go home with them”, says Savitha Hiremath, an environmental activist and parent at a premier institution in North Bangalore. Most schools follow similar protocols with verified and contactable attenders on school buses provided by the schools. Counselling cells on campus remain invaluable and available.

Down to brass tacks
Sexual abuse is a stigma that affects all equally but the fact that families from stronger socio-economic backgrounds remain more hesitant to come forward when compared to those from weaker sections, convolutes the problem.

Media, and its influence, become irreplaceable when people need to reach out. While the POCSO Act rules that every case of child abuse must be reported, when covering these cases for public awareness, the media must adopt a sensitive approach, without compromising the dignity of the victim. Calling it a "vehicle of public opinion and mirror to society", a prominent media head insists that media is but one facet of society and cannot live up to expectations of a greater role. He highlights the reality of a rural city-bound multitude steadily dominating in-city trends. To combat this resultant clash of cultures, he would like to see a well-researched acculturisation training system in schools, before young adults are inducted into mainstream society. 

Till that falls into place, enabling children to take considered decisions seems like a fantastic alternative and the makkala panchayat of Kundapur are fine examples in this direction. 

There is no alternative, however, to law enforcement and a socially responsive Judiciary that will proactively plug loopholes and set precedents as necessary. This is especially pertinent because society’s unforgiving conservatism, antiquated dogmatism, varying degrees of awareness, low humanitarianism and accountability, blatantly prosper even in our administrative agencies. Our hope lies in prevention. Perpetrators must fear consequences.

Mr Sarfaraz Khan, Joint Commissioner at BBMP, stresses on the need for a “people’s administration, where the ‘people’ have the power to exert pressure not just on the political class but also on the bureaucracy”. He strongly believes in empowering citizen groups and mentors many such in his zone, ensuring that “administrators are accountable and have a moral and social fear of the citizens, to conduct themselves in the interest of society”. On being asked about the problem of apathy that plagues our child welfare system, he places great value on the moral standards and self-worth of officials in power and the influence that can have on subbordinates down the line. He summarily dismisses non-performing officers and listens to the people in his charge, paying heed to them.

And there lies the crux of all problem solving:  watch, listen and act. Because, though things are looking up, when it comes to our children’s security, there is no substitute to listening and believing. In turn, our children should be able to trust that we will not let them down. That is fundamental.