Shocking statistics. Devastating stories. Our dirty national secret. Nishita Jha & Revati Laul bring you a horrifying report on the rampant sexual abuse of children in India
Nishita JhaRevati Laul


4-05-2013, Issue 18 Volume 10

Illustration: Anand Naorem

Illustrations: Anand Naorem

To begin with, hear the story of one child. On 17 December 2012 — just one day after the gangrape of a young paramedic in New Delhi shook the world — a three-and-a-half-year old baby girl returned from school with her clothes streaked with vomit and blood.

Her father, Gagan Sharma (name changed), had moved from Kolkata to a slum in west Delhi in 2003 in search of a better life. The little girl had been listless and reluctant to go to school for weeks. Now, when her mother asked her what had happened, she told the story haltingly, riven by fear.

She spoke of a bald man — the principal’s husband — who had threatened to hang her from a ceiling fan if she dared to open her mouth. She spoke of how he had taken her to the bathroom, made her lie down, and inserted his penis and fingers into her vagina and her anus, blaring music in his room to drown any noise. She spoke of how he had done this to her many times before, forcing her to keep quiet by saying terrible things would happen to her parents if she talked about it.

The girl’s mouth was full of ulcers from a drug the alleged perpetrator — a man called Pramod Malik — had forced her to take to render her unconscious while he raped her.

The fact of the rape is horrific enough. Here’s what came after. According to the parents, it took them 12 hours at the police station to get an FIR registered. They were taunted by a woman sub-inspector for living in a colony of “disrepute”; their own reputation was questioned; the little girl was asked to recount her story in front of three policemen. The woman sub-inspector prefaced the inquiry by telling the little girl: “Tell the truth or insects will crawl all over you and your mother and father will be beaten.”

Despite these threats, the little girl repeated her story exactly as she had told it to her parents. In the magistrate’s court, she was challenged again. She told her story again. The medical examiner, however, ruled out rape and left the report vague. The headmaster was let out on bail on 28 February. On the other hand, Gagan Sharma’s landlord asked him and his family to leave. They are still struggling with the case.

Now, hear the story of a second. Asha, an 18- year-old in Gowandi, a slum in Mumbai, is a volunteer with a community-based NGO called Aastha Parivar that helps slum-dwellers and sex workers — the poor and the marginalised — lodge complaints with the police. One day, her 14-year-old friend Neelima (name changed) complained about being harassed by a boy next door. Emboldened by her training at the NGO, Asha took her friend to the police to complain. They rebuffed the girls rudely. The boy stepped up his harassment, standing at his doorway and masturbating when Neelima passed. Asha went to the police again. This time the cop gave her a scrap of paper with a number: “Jab rape hoga, tab bulana,” he smirked, (“Call us when there’s an actual rape.”)

A month later, Neelima’s naked body was found cut in pieces and dumped in a drain. Her neighbour — the boy she had been complaining about — had disappeared without a trace. Incensed, Asha went to the police again with a description of the neighbour. This time she was ordered to leave the slum and create no more trouble.

Here’s the story of a third. In Ahmednagar, a city in Maharashtra, a 13-year-old girl was forced to inhale chloroform by her own father so he could knock her out and rape her.

And a fourth. In 2010, in Paravoor in Kerala, another father filmed his own 14-year-old daughter taking a bath before he raped her. He then pimped her out to customers across the state, before selling her. Over the next two years, she was raped by 148 men.

And a fifth. In April this year, the 16- year-old daughter of a rich mining baron based in Gurgaon confessed to her teachers and principal that her father frequently took her on “bonding trips” all by herself, raping her in anonymous hotel rooms across the country. Her father also used to beat her mother. A case was filed just as he was going to take her off to Dubai. By the time child welfare groups reached the girl’s home, however, relatives had had their way: the shutters had come down. Though the father had been taken into custody, in the presence of her family, the adolescent refused to speak. Mother and daughter have now withdrawn their story before the magistrate’s court.

And a sixth. A 50-year-old mother from Punjab speaks of how her husband sexually abused their daughter when she was four. He would lock her in a room and tell her that if she made a noise, her stuffed toy lion would eat her up. When she noticed the bite marks on her child, the mother began to ask questions and reported her husband to the police. The case took three years to reach the court. Since there had been no penile penetration, the case was registered under the arcane clause of “outraging the modesty of a woman”; the father was let out on bail within one day. The mother, herself a survivor of childhood sex abuse, filed for divorce. The father agreed not to meet his daughter till she was 13. However, when she turned 15, he petitioned the courts for visitation rights. His daughter testified in court that she wanted to have nothing to do with her father. She is 19 now and still has nightmares.

Child A – AGE 14 | Paravoor, Kerala

Occurred 2010 | Convicted in 2012
The nightmare began in 2010, when her father filmed this 14-year-old having a bath, and then raped her. After that, he pimped her out to customers across Kerala, before finally selling her. In the span of two years, she was raped by 148 people, of whom 102 were finally arrested and 19 given life sentences.
Child B – AGE 13 | Ahmednagar, Maharashtra

Occurred 2011 | Accused under trial
Her father would first sedate this 13-year-old with chloroform, then rape her. This Class VIII student was tortured, burnt and threatened with dire consequences if she dared tell anyone. She finally gathered the courage to talk to her uncle, who in turn contacted an NGO. The father was charged and arrested.

Hear these stories and then imagine them amplified thousands of times — in every brutal variation — in every part of the country. Imagine 48,838 children raped in just 10 years. Imagine what it means when you are told this staggering figure — which is a National Crimes Record Bureau statistic — is possibly only 25 percent of the actual child rapes going on in the country. And that only 3 percent — a mere 3 percent — of these make it to the police. Imagine what it means when you are told child rapes have seen a chilling 336 percent jump from 2001 to 2011.

Imagine this, and you begin to have a small measure of how deep the inhuman phenomenon of child rapes runs in India.

THIS WEEK, the barbaric story of a five-year-old girl in east Delhi, raped and bitten by two drunk neighbours — who inserted candles and a plastic hair-oil bottle into her before trying to strangle her — has brought the phenomenon of raped minors into hard and timely focus.

Since this horrific story hit the headlines, others that were merely footnotes in the country’s consciousness have started getting foregrounded in the media. How a nine-year-old from Silchar, Assam, was kidnapped, gangraped and found with a slit throat on the same April day as the five-year-old in Delhi. How a 10-year-old Dalit girl was raped by a 35-year-old Rajput in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. How a compounder in Bhopal would rape his three-year-old daughter while his wife went to drop their five-year-old son to school. And how a 75-year-old man in Tripura was arrested for raping a 10-year-old.

While this intense but delayed media attention is positive, it is still selective — privileging only the most violent, the most sensational, and the rapes most ‘similar’ to the case in New Delhi. But to do only that would again be to miss the landscape. Violent rape of minors is only one aspect of a hellish self that India must now confront.

A 2007 Human Rights Watch report, which quoted a government survey of 12,500 children from 13 states across the country, found that 57 percent children — that is more than one in every two children — said they had been sexually abused in some way. Twenty percent of these children admitted to being aggressively assaulted: they had either been penetrated; made to sexually fondle an adult; or been forced to display their own genitals. And clearly, gender is no bias where child sexual abuse is concerned: of the 57 percent children who said they had been abused, more than half were boys.

One of the most crucial aspects of child sexual abuse and rape that must be acknowledged, therefore, is that it is rampant, indiscriminate and cuts across class, geography, culture and religion. It happens in cities and villages, by fathers, brothers, relatives, neighbours, teachers and strangers.

There is a temptation to cast only predatory working-class men in the mould of rapists. Both the paramedic’s rape and that of the child in east Delhi this week fit that narrative. It is easier — even comforting — to think such heinous crimes are only done by deviant, drunk men, incapable of processing their depraved sexual urges; men who can be hung and exterminated. It is much harder to confront the dark reality within the walls of one’s own homes.

As Enakshi Ganguly, co-director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, says, “Minors who live in slums are certainly vulnerable because, in most cases, both parents work and have nowhere secure to leave their children. But middle- and upper-middle- class children are also vulnerable because they live in such closed communities, they have no one to talk to about their abuse. They are under immense family pressure to preserve ideas of ‘family honour’ and not speak up.”

The scars the 50-year old mother from Punjab carries is emblematic of the wounding and unmapped silence that grips India. “I was sexually abused from the age of 10 until I was 19 by a member of the family who was like a father to me,”
she says. “This stayed unaddressed because there was no way one could talk about it. Being abused by a man who you look up to, seek protection from and who claimed to love me, completely changed a part of my soul. I suffered from a deep sense of self-loathing and blame. I could no longer connect with people or my inner self. I have always had trouble trusting people or asserting myself. Soon I found myself attracting the same kind of abusive relationships. There is also a deep sense of shame I feel towards my body. It has been 31 years since I was abused, but I’m still ashamed of wearing fitted clothes or deep necklines. And even today when I see a man with a child, I feel nauseated.”

Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan encapsulates the heart of the problem. “I think the Indian family is in deep crisis,” he says. “The violence in our families — the perversions, the sexuality, the silences — are creating a tremendous crisis that we are not looking at; that we don’t even want to look at. We focus on the ‘scandalous’ nature of these incidents. But it is a scandal that is taking place every day. Unless we look at its everyday nature, nobody is going to understand the heinousness of it.”

VIEWED FROM a different prism, the story of child rape in India is also a story of deeply ingrained callousness. When the parents of the five-year-old raped in east Delhi had found her missing and gone to the police, they refused to file an FIR and did not even undertake a cursory search. In the end, it was her shrill, insistent wailing that helped neighbours locate her, locked in a room in the very building in which her parents lived.

Look at the shocking data, based merely on reported cases, and you can almost hear the clamour of children still waiting to be found. The story of raped minors in India then is also the story of its missing children. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a child goes missing in India every eight minutes. (Recall the gruesome Nithari murders when panicked parents from an east Delhi slum kept reporting their lost children but no action was taken till their bodies started turning up in raped and cannibalised parts.)

Where do these children go? TEHELKA cover story, The Nowhere Children by Neha Dixit, 1 November 2008, discovered that human trafficking was the third largest illicit industry after arms and drugs.

In a room cramped with young girls, the air thick with perfume and whispers, Reshma, 18, a sex worker in Mumbai, is no stranger to the epidemic of incest and rape in India. “Why do you think fathers or brothers are any different?” she asks with a hard-earned worldliness, “Hai toh voh bhi mard hi na? (After all, they too are men, aren’t they?)”

Trafficked from Chennai at the age of six when her mother died, Reshma was raped in every way imaginable — or “trained” to use her words — at seven different homes in Mumbai before being sent to a brothel madam when she turned 14. “The first time, I was asked to set his clothes out on the bed before he went to work. He came out of the bathroom, picked me up and forced me face down on the bed. He lay down on me. I started to cry and said, “Uncle I can’t breathe, why are you doing this?” The man told her if she shouted, he would tell everyone she had tried to steal from him.

Reshma soon learnt the easiest way to stay out of brutal harm was to remain silent. Soon after, she was sent with a pimp and groups of young girls to London, Dubai and Malaysia to sleep with men as old as 60 or 75, for a premium rate. She doesn’t flinch when she says civilian women in the country are safe only because there are sex workers in the world — warriors of a different kind — to ensure there is a vent for baser male desires. Each girl in the room has stories more barbaric than the other: chilli powder applied to genitals; hands and legs tied while one customer after another uses their bodies in any way he sees fit; daily beatings; in-house abortions. “Wives and daughters cannot withstand what we do,” says Reshma.

 Child C – AGE 14 | Kannur, Kerala

Occurred 2010-11 | Convicted in 2011
It was only when she could take it no more that this 14-year-old girl confided to her schoolteacher that her father, a daily wage labourer, had been raping her for the past year. After the intervention of a local NGO, the girl was shifted to a shelter home and her father sentenced to life imprisonment.
Child D – AGE 13 | Delhi

Occurred 2012 | Accused out on bail
This three-year-old came home from school with vaginal bleeding and vomitsoaked clothes. Her principal’s husband had been raping her, and had threatened to hang her from the fan if she told anyone. The medical examiner ruled out rape and registered a vague report, and only when local NGOs and political parties got involved did the case come to court.

Aastha Parivar, the Mumbai-based NGO, routinely finds young girls in brothels, who claim to be adults but are no older than 14 or 15. Asha — who had tried to help Neelima — recently rescued one such girl. She travelled to her village in Rajasthan, found her birth certificate, got a letter from the gram panchayat and finally came back to Mumbai to threaten her pimp to release the girl. But when she took the girl home to Jodhpur, the family, who had been perfectly happy to pick up money orders from the post office for the past six months, was suddenly too ashamed to take her back.

In most cases, once these young girls are trafficked, the pimps make a fresh set of false papers for them, which is how they are able to travel abroad with no trouble. Clearly, there is an entire system working in collusion: among the 148 men that slept with the young girl in Kerala, who had been trafficked by her father, there was an NRI doctor, an actor, a retired naval officer and various businessmen.

It is no surprise then that these children — the ones who are not the subject of Facebook pages and popular protests — should have learned to think like adults, to weigh morals against money and choose the latter. “The younger you are, the more you can charge,” Reshma says matter-of-factly, pointing to Bilquis, a dimpled 14-year-old who had her first abortion last month.

IN WHICHEVER diabolic form it comes — rapist fathers or rapist strangers, rape within the home or in brothels, whether it is with prepuberty children or adolescent girls — there is a systemic failure that needs urgent redressal.

Inevitably, the police is the first interface. And inevitably, like most stories in India, the story of police response to rape is a complex one.

At one level, there is plain brutishness and malevolent prejudice. A TEHELKA sting last year, The rapes will go on by G Vishnu and Abhishek Bhalla, 20 December 2012, captured the venomous chauvinism with which many police officers and constables view women and rape. Shockingly, this sometimes extends to children as well. Some of the cases mentioned in this story already illustrate that. But, depressingly, there are thousands more.

Sudha Tiwari, a child rights activist, recalls a case from the 1990s, when a 13-year-old was raped by her father. The parents had had a fight and the mother had gone to her parents’ place leaving her daughter behind. At night, the father climbed onto his daughter, stripped her naked and raped her. Hearing her screams, the neighbours came in and dragged the father to the police. They refused to register a case. The next day, Tiwari and other activists got involved and took the father to the police station again, forcing them to file a case. They did file the case but not before taunting the mother. “You are frigid,” they told her, “that’s why your poor man has no choice but to go to his daughter to satisfy himself.”

According to Tiwari, they see less of that level of criminal boorishness in the police now (though activists elsewhere in the country have different experiences). But, contrary to the clamour in the media and public domain, there are seemingly no shortcuts.

The presence of women cops, for instance — one of the great demands of all street protests — is no automatic safeguard. Bharti Ali, of HAQ, has some sobering insights. “We often have serious issues with women police officers,” she says. “They want to hush things up and refuse to register cases because they are facing so much brutality in their own personal lives, they have no empathy for others.” She speaks of how women cops are scared to go home wearing uniforms because they have no power within their own homes. “You can’t be walking in uniform into a place where an hour later the neighbours can hear screams of you getting beaten up.”

But frustration, prejudice and entrenched social bigotry do not account for the whole police story either. In the curious twists that India can be replete with, it appears the police are wrongly incentivised.

During Mayawati’s reign, the Uttar Pradesh Police were infamously loath to register any cases against Dalit atrocities because she had wanted the crime rate to be brought down: the only way to create such miracle change was to keep the books clean and pretend there was no crime.

In Delhi this week, the cops allegedly tried to bribe the parents of the five-year-old to bury the case. It’s unclear whether they were merely being venal and exploitative or were scared of having such a brutal crime happen on their watch.

Either way, Ganguly, also of HAQ, points out how ill-thought-out the incentives are. “The police are rewarded for being crime free. No one gives them credit for reporting cases in a timely and competent way; for lodging sound FIRs and investigating a case well. So where is their motivation to investigate and prosecute these cases? They would rather just stay out of trouble and wash their hands off it. Pretend their areas of jurisdiction have no crime.”

Child E – AGE 14 | Maliwada, Maharashtra

Occurred 2006 |  Convicted in 2010

An autorickshaw driver approached Childline when his 14-year-old daughter went missing. It took three years to rescue the girl, during which she had been sold into prostitution and taken to various places in the state and Goa. After a four-year battle, 20 high-profile individuals, including politicians and traders, were sentenced to two life-terms each.
Child F – AGE 14 | Mumbai

Occurred 2009 | Accused at large

She complained to the police twice that a 14- year-old girl in her slum was being sexually harassed by a neighbour. The police laughed it off, asking her to call when an actual rape took place. A month later, the girl’s naked body was found cut to pieces and dumped in a gutter. The boy had disappeared overnight.

Bharti Ali points out other imponderables. “Police sensitisation has been happening,” she says, “but though a lot of the rules are now in writing, all of it is contingent on how receptive a particular DCP is. For instance, we were having a monthly meeting with all stakeholders — the Child Welfare Committees, the Juvenile Justice Boards, social workers, the magistrate and the police — in the Outer Delhi district. But it’s all stopped now because the new DCP doesn’t think it is useful.”

childDelhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar may have been right when he said he would “resign a 1,000 times if that would prevent rapes”. The prevention of rape may not always be in his hands. But the response to it certainly is. He — and his peers in the system — have to square up to that.

IT IS crucial to drive home at each juncture of this story that more than anything else, it is families and parents who are failing India’s children the most. Apart from being the main perpetrators themselves, the violence of silence is all-pervasive. It is imperative to break this silence.

Harish Iyer, 32, an equal rights activist, believes he was “set free” when his best friend told his entire college that he was being abused. Iyer, the son of a well-to-do businessman and a homemaker, was raped regularly between the ages of seven to 18 by an uncle close to the family. “The first time he raped me, he forced my mouth on to his penis. If I tried to scream, he would choke me harder,” says Iyer. Soon after, when Iyer’s aunt was away, his uncle crawled into bed with him and sodomised him. “Every time I tried to scream or protest, he would hurt me more. I learnt the easiest way to make it end was to just stay quiet. After a point, whenever he entered my room, I would just take my clothes off, lie down and wait for it to be over.”

Iyer’s mother, who told her friends that her increasingly reticent son was “just different” from other kids, could never fully comprehend what her son meant when he told her he disliked his uncle. On the sole occasion Iyer, terrified and filled with shame, told her he was bleeding, she told him he was “probably eating too many mangoes”.

Over the 11 years that he abused him, Iyer’s uncle devised newer and increasingly more sadistic methods for his pleasure. He opened up his nephew with tongs when he was not receptive, poked him with needles to make him bleed, inserted various objects into his anus. On occasion, he even forced him to perform sexual favours on other men.

Ravi Kant, a Supreme Court lawyer and director of the anti-trafficking NGO, Shakti Vahini, says the maximum incidences of fathers raping daughters that he has witnessed happen in upper-class, elite families. But he hasn’t been able to take even a single case through to its just end. “There is so much pressure within the family, the fathers brothers, their wives, everyone suddenly appears on the scene once ‘family honour’ is at stake,” he says.

But even as one persists with these reiterations, it is important to map the other key vulnerabilities in the system. Juvenile justice homes are one such black hole.

A report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights has listed four reasons why these shelter and rehabilitation homes have become sites of such intense sexual assault and exploitation. First, most states have not formed Inspection Committees, which are mandated to inspect juvenile justice homes at least once every three months. Secondly, there are hundreds of unregistered childcare homes in the country that fall outside the purview of any regulatory mechanism. Thirdly, though the Juvenile Justice Act, 2007, provides for separate facilities for boys and girls, for the most part, this is not complied with. Finally, though there are 462 district-level Child Welfare Committees in 23 states mandated to verify the viability of childcare institutions, most of these exist only on paper. (Bizarrely, in October 2010, the Karnataka government even prohibited members of the welfare committees to visit childcare institutions without prior permission from the institution heads. In effect, this order prohibited any random or surprise inspections.)

Unfortunately, the judicial infrastructure and attitudes around child rape can often be as bruising and opaque.

Following the 2007 Human Rights Watch study, which revealed one in every two interviewed children had been abused, Parliament had passed a landmark Bill for the prevention of sexual offences against children last November. According to the Prevention of Child Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, separate and stringent punishments are to be meted out for each kind of violation of a child’s innocence, including exposing the child to pornography, taking nude photographs of him/her or exposing the child to one’s private parts. Further, the Act attempts to make legal proceedings ‘child friendly’ by decreeing that the victim’s testimony be recorded by an officer not in uniform (preferably female), at a place of the child’s choosing. Under no circumstance should the child be detained at a police station. Additionally, the Act declares that anyone who knows of a child being abused and fails to report the matter to the police can and will be punished.

There were other good interventions. The Act made it mandatory for legal aid to be provided to minors who have complained of rape. This was meant to be implemented by state-level commissions and Child Welfare Committees, statutory bodies set up to administer shelters and children in need of protection and care under the Juvenile Justice Act.

This was a path-breaking clause because even though a public prosecutor is appointed to all such cases, there was a desperate need for legal counsel for parents who don’t want to suffer the laborious process of filing a case, being threatened, or even putting their child through the repeated trauma of testifying before a magistrate.

But sadly — depressingly — on ground, all of this is just so much white smoke. As already mentioned, most of the state-level commissions don’t even exist. And recently, when the Ministry of Women and Child Development wrote to all the state secretaries asking them to report back on what had been done to set up state-level commissions to implement POCSO, only Odisha and Haryana wrote back.

Child G – AGE 8 | Delhi

Occurred 2008 | Accused set free by trial court
His eight-year-old daughter was raped by a neighbour’s son. When he filed a case, the court deemed the accused a juvenile despite electoral rolls putting his age at 20 and medical tests determining that he was at least 18 years and two months old at the time of the crime. After two weeks in judicial custody, he was let off.
Child H – AGE  3 | Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Occurred 2012 | Convicted in 2013
He would rape his three-year-old daughter when his wife went to drop their five-year-old son to school. A compounder by profession, he knew how to rape his daughter in a manner that would cause minimal visible damage. The abuse only came to light when he was caught in the act. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in January.

India’s darkest, most ugly and hellish epidemic and no government functionary is even interested to write back. Like most Indian laws, POCSO too appears to be written for an imagined law-enforcing machinery.

This criminal absence of response becomes even starker when contrasted with how effective these interventions could be — if acted upon.

Bharati Sharma, former chairperson of a Child Welfare Committee in New Delhi, and founder of the NGO Shakti Shalini, describes one such case. In 2007, a five-year-old girl was briefly left alone at home by her parents. Her mother had gone back to the village with her younger sibling; her father had gone or work on night duty. A female neighbour was supposed to stay the night with her but got slightly delayed. In that short span of time, a neighbour entered the home and raped the child so brutally she was hospitalised for a month. The community banded together and informed a social worker from the NGO World Vision. They got an FIR filed.

This is where Sharma stepped in. Her outfit managed to get a lawyer from HAQ for free. It made all the difference. The parents had wanted to give the child up to a shelter home out of shame. But the Child Welfare Committee and the lawyer counselled them out of it. He used to visit them at home, patiently explaining the process to them — something a public prosecutor will rarely have the time to do. The magistrate, in this case, was so insensitive, the hearing for the child’s statement was fixed and postponed seven times, forcing her to appear repeatedly in court. The lawyer took this up with the Delhi High Court and had guidelines issued for all stakeholders: police, doctors and lawyers. The whole case took three years, but the perpetrator was sentenced for 10 years. And the family was able to go back to their existing home, without abandoning the child.

“That’s how crucial legal aid or the lack of it can be while dealing with rape of minors,” says Sharma. “Often parents have no clue what to do; they don’t have the finances and are under a lot of trauma. Under such circumstances, a dedicated lawyer for a minor victim can literally mean the line between life and snuffing its future out.”

Yet, despite all the public noise over rape in recent months, almost no government has paid acute attention to galvanise any of this on ground.

THE GANGRAPE on 16 December and the child rape this week have triggered unprecedented protests in Delhi and across the country. While these protests have undoubtedly been a powerful catalyst — breaking the silence, searing the country’s consciousness, ringing in at least some important legislative changes — their demands and their echo chambers in the media and political establishment have also veered towards two issues that threaten to derail more substantive changes. This is the demand for death penalty for child rape and the banning of pornography.

Apart from all the usual ethical and legal arguments against having death penalty in a civilised democracy, to ask for it in the context of child rapes is almost suicidal. Repeatedly, we have seen families loath to break the omerta and speak about their children being raped merely to save “family honour”. Imagine what a steel wall of silence — what a complex concertina of social backlash — will descend if speaking up will mean death for one’s fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbours.

The question of banning pornography is slightly more complicated, but perhaps equally inconsequential.

Bharti Ali of HAQ does believe that regulating of pornography might be necessary now, given the hyper-sexualised content available to children on their cell phones, computers and television screens. “Rather than changing the channel though, it might be a better idea to let a child watch a film where the actors are making out to the end, so that he or she can place sex in a context instead of looking at it as an isolated, unemotional act,” she says.

But Asha points out that pornography has existed before the Internet and will continue to do so. It is impossible to control. In any case, for children growing up in tiny, box-sized 8ftx8ft shanties, crammed children and adult in joint families, the sexual act can never remain hidden. Privacy is not a luxury the poor can afford. Even in the cases of juvenile rapists that she has encountered, Asha says boys find it easier to “scare a little girl” into doing what they want rather than look for money to watch a blue film at the local parlour or visit a brothel.

Our desire to weed out the scourge of rape from India has to start a lot deeper.

SUNITHA KRISHNAN refuses to engage with the din emanating from New Delhi just now. Twentyfive years ago, Krishnan, then 16, was gangraped by eight men. Among the many injuries the ordeal caused to her body and mind, it also left Krishnan partially deaf — this is her second ear surgery in four years. Despite social pressure to define herself as a ‘victim’ of rape, Krishnan has been not just a survivor of, but a champion against sexual violence. She has consistently refused to hide her identity or her face, insisting that rape survivors must be the first to “shift the shame”.

Yet, when TEHELKA contacted her to talk about the rape of minors, she chose to remain silent. “Do the story when there is no noise about it,” was her terse reply to our email. In a sense, it was not surprising. At our first meeting, she had lambasted the media’s biased coverage, saying that journalists never hounded rapists, and even when they did, it was always the lower class, anonymous perpetrator that they wrote about — never the father taking his daughter on solitary vacations, or the uncle always coming over when no one was home.

When Krishnan spoke of a “certain kind” of rape that is reported, she referred to the privileging of rape by strangers over rape by family or institutions. The insinuation is — New Delhi will take to the streets over the gangrape on the bus, or for the five-year-old raped by her neighbour, but never for the countless boys and girls violated as a matter of routine in their own homes, or the girls violated by officers of the state. Even the new anti-rape Bill, generally considered a step in the right direction, stays coy on the issue of marital rape, or rape by the armed forces. The only way to make sense of the sharply accelerating incidences of sexual violence against children is to stop looking at them in isolation. There is something that these rapes by strangers, families, caretakers and customers have in common: the noise that they create is not just getting incredibly loud, but it is also extremely close.

Child I – AGE 7 | Mumbai, Maharashtra

Occurred 1988-99 | Case never filed
He was raped regularly between the age of seven and 18 by his uncle. His uncle became more sadistic as time went by, opening him up with tongs when he was not receptive, poking him with needles, inserting foreign objects into his anus. When he told his mother that he was bleeding, she dismissed it, saying he had been eating too many mangoes.
Child J – AGE  8 | Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Occurred 2010 | Convicted in 2010

The eight-year-old was raped so brutally by her maternal uncle’s 15-year-old son over three months that she had to be hospitalised with severe vaginal bleeding. Her younger sister was also raped. The girls told their mother about the abuse, but she tried to hush it up. They finally complained to their father, who lodged a police complaint. After an inquiry, the rapist was sent to a juvenile justice home.

Two weeks ago, when we had met in New York at Newsweek’s Women in the World summit, Krishnan sat alone on the steps of the Lincoln Theatre eating her lunch, “I don’t feel too comfortable in crowds,” she smiled, as if to explain why we could not have this conversation in the banquet hall inside. At 4 ft 6 in, Krishnan is as tall as she was when she was 16. She says her case was “doomed” from the beginning because she could not recall the faces of a single one of her assailants. “All I remember from that night is a smell,” she says. A smell. And the lasting fear of being in crowds.

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