The case involving the alleged sexual abuse of a two-year-old boy at a play-school in Kolkata, the capital of India’s eastern state of West Bengal, has once again highlighted the need to look at boys as victims. Currently, the laws mostly look at women as victims, leaving males in a gray zone. Yet more than half of the survivors of child sexual abuse are boys, according to a government survey.
Kolkata police say that after the two-year-old boy came home with injuries, the principal of the play-school refused to share surveillance footage with the parents, saying that nothing had happened at the school and the parents had no evidence.
The school maintained its stance even after the parents of other children protested outside the school demanding an explanation. The mother of a two-year-old girl even asked why the principal would not believe the boy.
The boy’s parents have filed a first information report (FIR) and accused the school of negligence.
When asked about the case, the school said, “We have submitted each and everything that was asked of us by the [investigating] officer. We have nothing to say.” It added that the allegation of sexual assault had not been proved.
Indian Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi asked the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to take action on the case and spoke to the director general of police in Kolkata urging a speedy arrest of the perpetrator.
Activists have pointed out how Indian laws significantly fail young boys who are victims of sexual crime. Although boys accounted for 53% of the survivors in a 2007 survey, current legislation does not treat boys and girls equally.
Gaps in laws
The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently introduced the death penalty for rape of girls under 12 and increased the minimum punishment from 10 to 20 years for rapists whose victims are under 16, through the Criminal Law (Amendment) ordinance. But it does not include boys. So the minimum punishment for raping a boy is 10 years in jail under the Protection of Children against Sexual Offenses Act, compared with 20 years for assaults on girls under 16.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2018 has been approved by the federal cabinet and will be introduced for approval in the current session of Parliament. Once approved, it will replace the previous ordinance. After that, the government is supposed to amend the Protection of Children against Sexual Offenses Act in order to make the 2018 bill applicable to boys.
Additionally, Gandhi has amended the Victim Compensation Scheme to include compensation for male victims of child sexual abuse. But many think that laws and punishments are not enough on their own.
“Child sexual abuse is a problem we have had since time immemorial and laws are getting stricter by the day. Still, this problem is not disappearing, so clearly, that is not the solution,” said Shiv Priy Alok, a filmmaker who has worked on the issue.
Culture of silence
The stigma and silence around sexual abuse and sexuality at large make it difficult for children, especially boys, to share their trauma.
“I want people to talk about this. The sooner and the more we talk about this, the faster this problem will disappear,” said Alok, who made Gandi Baat (“Dirty Talk”), touted as India’s first documentary on male child sexual abuse. “When we talk about anything sexual, our parents tell us that we shouldn’t because it is gandi baat. And so that is the name of my documentary.”
Alok himself is a survivor. “When I was seven to eight years old, some seniors in my boarding school would sexually abuse me. This went on for about two years.”
He recalls being unable to talk about it and cites the patriarchal society as the reason. “Rape is only understood as a man-on-woman crime. People don’t believe that men or boys can be raped in the real sense. Even our movies have dialogues like ‘Mard ko dard nahi hota’ – ‘Men do not feel pain.’”
Filmmaker Dariwala conducted an online survey of 160 Indian men, and 71% of the respondents said they were survivors of child sexual abuse. Of these, 85% said they had not told anyone about it primarily because of shame (55.6%), confusion (50.9%), fear (43.5%) and guilt (28.7%).
Alok also believes that Indian culture makes it easier for abusers to target children. “We are taught from childhood that those elder to us are always right. You cannot object to anything they say or raise your voice with them. So abusers take advantage of this.”
The silence around child sexual abuse worsens the mental health of the survivor. Alok said he would get flashbacks of his abuse that would then drive him into depression. But seeking mental-health care is heavily stigmatized.
“In our culture, visiting a psychiatrist is extremely shameful. So sometimes it is difficult to convince parents to send their children for counseling sessions,” said Soma Roy Karmakar, the Kolkata Project Manager of Recovery and Healing from Incest Foundation.
Vishnu Teja, a survivor of child sexual abuse from the state of Andhra Pradesh, reportedly wrote a letter on July 10 to President Ram Nath Kovind asking for mercy killing as at the age of 23 he still fights nightmares of his abuse and has no hope for justice.
“There needs to be awareness about how it [sexual abuse] can affect the mind, body, and soul of the survivor. People are not at all aware of the short-term and long-term effects of child sexual abuse,” Karmakar said.
She suggests that the government design community awareness programs on the subject because child sexual abuse has taken the form of an epidemic. “It is happening everywhere, in every family,” she said. “We should talk till we break the silence around the issue.”