By Anita Panda
Children are the future, so what does it bode for a society if some of its youngest members are brought up on a daily diet of insult and violence? A study titled ‘Parenting Matters’ released last month by UNICEF found there are 30 different forms of physical and verbal abuse that Indian parents use on children from newborns to six years as part of disciplining efforts.
Punishment is also gendered: girl children are more likely to be burdened with household chores, day-to-day restrictions, or difference in the kind of toys they are given.
The pandemic and associated lockdowns have only added to domestic woes, with cases of violence showing an alarming increase. Experts, however, warn that most cases are not reported, so the actual numbers of such parental abuse may be unknown.
Persis Sidhwa, litigation head at lawyers’ collective Majlis, says, “The helpline approach is limited during lockdown as most kids have no access to teachers in whom they normally confide. The magnitude of abuse they suffer is only the tip of the iceberg. A lot more will be exposed post-lockdown when they go back to school.”
“Abuse festers within homes.”
According to Persis, India has multiple and sufficient laws to protect children. “But our focus should be on implementation and how to make the system work,” she says. “It is not the severity but the certainty of this punishment that matters.” She cites the low conviction rates and lack of adequate socio-legal support to affected families as the biggest obstacle.
“In 10 years of working with Majlis, I’ve noticed a rise in cases of domestic violence against women and children,” she avers, adding that Majlis offers socio-legal support to victims through their Victim Support programmes. It works with the police, protection officers, court system and child welfare committees regarding sensitisation and awareness of child abuse.
She believes that more positive stories need to be highlighted in the media so that mothers and children are empowered to make the call to distress helplines such as 1098 (childline) or 100 (police) and going a step further to file an FIR when they face domestic violence.
“Mothers are scared of filing a report against their husbands, but counselling strengthens them. Women are not aware of how to access their rights. Therapy, promise of shelter and making them aware that they and their children will be supported helps.”
“Where the child is abused, the mother is abused,” says Persis.
Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF representative in India, shares a few horrific details of the extent of abuse Indian children face routinely from the new study: “The various forms of violence against children includes physical violence (burning; pinching; slapping; beating with implements like stick, belts, rods) verbal abuse (blaming; criticising; shouting; use of foul language); witnessing physical violence (towards one parent; towards siblings; outside the family) and emotional abuse (restricting movement; denying food; discrimination; and instilling fear).”
Being brought up in violent homes has far-reaching repercussions, including producing another generation of violent abusers. But in cases where the criminals are minors – such as teenage rapists – Persis believes society must give them another chance.
“Kids in conflict with the law need robust rehabilitation programmes so that they can come out of it. The answer is not in incarcerating them,” says Persis, who campaigned against modifying the law that treats those under 18 as juveniles. The call to change the law came up after the heinous gang-rapes of 2012 in Delhi and 2013 in Mumbai (in both, one of the rapists was a minor).
Her argument is that India needs to strengthen its system of social workers, trained personnel, finances and better rehabilitation opportunities for juveniles instead of branding them ‘hardened criminals’ and giving them no more chance to rehabilitate themselves.
“All children deserve a second chance! We need to understand their socio-economic backgrounds and causes – raised in violent homes, struggling to get two square meals a day, abused and maltreated. Punishing them is irretrievable. Our judicial system, and those around the world too, are not infallible,” she insists, adding, “These kids are the lowest in the social order. We have failed them as a society and as government. As citizens, it is our duty to ensure that they are rehabilitated.”
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Dr Rubee Singh (above) is the author of Government Schemes for Child Protection in India and is the managing editor of IJARSH India journal. She lists the laws that protect children from abuse or exploitation at home or outside:
Articles 21 and 45: Free and compulsory education for all children aged 6 to 14
Article 23: Prohibition of human trafficking and forced labour
Article 24: Prohibition of employment of children under the age of 14 years in hazardous conditions
Article 39: Opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity; protection against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment
If a child faces abuse, these sections of the IPC can be invoked:
Section 83: Protection from prosecution for children aged 7 – 12
Section 292: Exposure to obscenity
Section 305: Abetment to suicide
Section 317: Abandonment of child
First published in eShe’s July 2020 issue
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