There seems to have been an epidemic of sexual molestation of children in Mumbai newspapers are full of horrifying stories about how children are vulnerable in places where they’re supposed to be safest.
Homes, schools, school buses - these are the hunting grounds for sexual predators. But surely, this cannot be a new phenomenon, an explosion that is peculiar to the second decade of the 21st century?
Yet, we in India behave no different from the Catholic Church which would not accept that its priests were molesting young children, especially boys, in spite of all the evidence presented before it. For the Catholic Church matters have now seemingly reached a head, since the resignation of the Pope is whispered to be somehow connected to a report about the scandal.
But what about us in India? Are we were going to continue to pretend that sexual assaults on children is some sort of western import which is polluting our populace? Or are we mature enough to accept that we have just pretended for years that these atrocities were not taking place because of social pressures and the need to hold on to a pretence of perfection no matter what the truth was?
When Pinki Virani’s Bitter Chocolate was released over a decade ago, many refused to believe the stories she documented - including her own - of sexual abuse of children in India. Last year, when an episode of Aamir Khan’s Satyameva Jayate discussed the subject, there was perhaps more acceptance but about as much squeamishness.
The truth is that unless we accept that this problem exists, we cannot tackle it. Most of the newspaper stories have been about girls being molested. But we cannot imagine that it does not happen to young boys as well. And the less we want to talk about, the easier we make life for molesters. The strong familial connections in India can be a hindrance in such cases, where we do not have the courage to rock the boat for the sake of a child’s suffering.
Strangely, a moral reason is put forward to block sex education in schools. If children learn about how the sexual process works they will apparently immediately rush out to try for themselves is the fear. But if children are not taught which sort of touch is unacceptable, they will always be easy prey, especially when the molester is a trusted person. The latest horror story is about a three-year-old girl being abused on a school bus, where the parents only found out because she was kissing like an adult and on questioning revealed that the “bus uncle” had taught her to kiss like that.
Some schools are trying to get around the aversion to sex education by calling it “body intelligence” to educate children on the difference between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’. This will at least give them some understanding that what is being done to them is wrong and has to be reported to an adult.
The other problem is that we do not have anything that resembles child welfare services in India, which can be called to provide assistance or shelter. The strong angry reactions to the two Norway cases are an example. Our initial response was to accuse the Norwegian authorities of racism until we discovered they were only trying to save the children from abusive parents.
It’s excellent news that this subject is being discussed today but unfortunately, we are seeing it in terms of school buses only. Should all bus attendants be females, should parents travel on buses, is the school or the home responsible and so on. But if we look at the problem exponentially, then we must realise that child sex abuse goes beyond school buses.
We need special laws for child sex offenders, we need to be able to identify and track serial offenders, we need to educate children and society on how sexually abusing minors is unacceptable. We cannot stop it but we should have the gumption to tackle it head on. Starting now.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona