We were standing on the platform at the Varanasi Junction, waiting for some people to arrive in town. My colleague, Ajay, a grassroots activist from Varanasi, was standing beside me.
“There are a lot of children wandering alone at this station,” I told him, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many at one junction…”
“Varanasi is the number one junction for child trafficking,” he told me without batting an eyelid, “They get the children from Nepal and Bangladesh and they are handed off here to be sold in sex trade…”
“Why don’t we do something?” I asked Ajay, in my infinite state of panicked naivete.
“What will you do?” Ajay asked me, “The law just isn’t there yet.”
Contrary to what Ajay believed, the law was there. POCSO or The Protect of Children from Sexual Offences Act was instituted in 2012, and it covers the various offences such as penetrative rape, non-penetrative sexual abuse, sexual harassment, child pornography and various other specific offences. Prior to POCSO the IPC (Indian Penal Code) was woefully lacking in the protection of children against sexual offences, most crimes of the time were dealt with under Section 375 (rape), Section 354 (Outraging the modesty of a woman) and Section 377 (Unnatural Offences).
Inspite of POCSO, what didn’t change was the culture of fear that surrounds speaking out when you are a child, and that is part of why convictions remain low.
When I was seven years old we received a phone call at the house one evening, I was sitting by the phone so I picked it up. There was a well-spoken, articulate man on the other line. He asked for my mother and I informed him that she was out. He then asked if I could answer a question for him.
“What colour panties are you wearing?”
I slammed the phone down because I knew that was inappropriate but mostly because I was scared. I was terrified. I was sure something terrible was going to happen but I didn’t understand it. I refused to sleep alone for several nights after that but there was no way that I could have explained back then why I was so scared, because I didn’t understand sexual fear yet. As sexual harassment goes what happened over the phone when I was seven was tame. The fear only intensifies as the consequences of speaking out escalate. If a child’s sexual abuse is coming from a source that provides or influences the provision of shelter and food, the child may not see an option other than taking it. As an adult you have the option of leaving and fending for yourself, as a child you do not have that option. Children may not have the emotional foundation of adults, but they understand fear, they don’t always understand how to articulate where the fear is coming from.
That’s where the culture of silence surrounding Child Sexual Assault comes from, because the voice of the victim is missing from the narrative. It is challenging to teach a child to recognize sexual harassment because children (at least till a certain age) have no concept of sexuality and it is especially problematic that due to the culture of sexual violence that exists in India we have to teach children to understand rape before they can understand sex. It may be the need of the hour but the long-term repercussions of a generation that had to be taught sexual violence before sex is yet to be determined. However it is clear that even today we are living in a country where our children are actively scared of being raped and molested.
A year ago I interviewed a 14-year old girl named Sonia* (name changed, interviewed with consent from parents and in presence of a teacher from her school and multiple peers). I asked her what she understands by the concept of “rape culture” in Delhi.
“I feel scared about being out and going out,” she said, “Sometimes I think about the juvenile in the Nirbhaya case who was acquitted and I think about how he is walking and living in the same city as me and it is really scary to think about.”
While it is alarming to recognize that a child could have such a structured response to that question, it is more alarming how much fear is absolutely necessary in today’s children. That, however, applies only to children who were at least taught to recognise and expect sexual violence, we have a long-standing tradition in India of calling ourselves conservatives so we don’t have to have difficult conversations and in most families in India you may be taught to protect yourself with the placement of restrictions on your personal freedoms, but it is not talked about what you are being protected from. The law doesn’t allow you to be a woman (or man) till you are 18 but when society puts that label on you as young as six, and gives you no space to discuss it, you grow up believing you have to hide your legs but never know why or from whom.
There is no free space, familial or otherwise, where children can safely discuss, admit to or question the violence. Most survivors of child sexual assault that I know did not speak up or even try to get help until they were adults. Like my friend Pritam* (name changed) whom i met in college in Bangalore. Pritam faced severe sexual abuse over several years while he was growing up, when talking about the abuse he said two things repeatedly: That he felt helpless as a child and was sure there was no way he could tell anyone or get out, and that he eventually grew to love his abuser and accept the violence as love.
This may sound odd, but psychologists posit that for a child forming an association of love with continued violence is amongst the most common coping mechanisms. The simplest example of this is that many indian children grow up believing that their parents hit them because they love them and only want what’s best for them. This makes it even more unlikely a child will speak up about abuse since the abuse is normalised and presented as love.
Ultimately having the laws to take action is only half the battle. I spent many weeks in Varanasi trying to find a child who would admit to the trafficking so we could start a dialogue on this, but there is no proper way to do this, and there was no child willing to speak to me, or any of the organisations i went through and i cannot hope to make a difference when i am fighting a crime where the victim is absent. It is the responsibility of adults to fight for our children but we cannot until we equip our children with the communication skills and safe spaces to discuss their fear. We cannot help the children until we can convince them that there is the option of safety.
I know that if a child makes a complaint the process of filing and interrogation is handled with extreme sensitivity. Children get to decide where they want to make their statements, even at home, and they are always assigned friendly, safe or just female constables (with the minimum rank of a sub-inspector). We have the provisions do help our children, but do they know that?
And how do we tell them without scaring them more?
Aarushi Ahluwalia is freelance journalist associates with various organisations like BBC, CNN, Guardian, Cobrapost who works primarily on issues of gendered violence and discrimination in India. She has two cats and a headache from all the mansplaining.