Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Waking up to a Society Hurting its Own Children

Waking up to a Society Hurting its Own Children

Brutality, violence and cruel sexual exploitation of children by parents have been increasingly occupying newspaper columns in the past few months. These blood-curdling episodes, no doubt, have shaken the collective conscience of the civil society. As I have been mulling over these media reports, feeling deeply disturbed, yet another shocking event has been reported in the newspapers , the other day about Manoj, a 15 year old boy who was locked up and brutally assaulted with hands and feet bound, by his step father Vijayadass (55), leading to the boy defecting and urinating in his clothes.

What is more curious and surprising is that many of these are happening in Kerala, one of the most literate and developed states in India. A case was charge-sheeted recently, by a court,  where a seven year old girl child, Adithi, was denied food and beaten to death by her father and step mother at Calicut, Kerala. One of the most sensational and horrific child-abuse case of the recent past in which, five-year-old Shafiq from Kattappana, near Idukki, Kerala, had a close brush with death due to continued torture by his father Sheriff and step mother Alisha for more than a year, will not be erased from our memories any time in the near future! Another case where a 14 year old girl had been repeatedly abused by her step mother’s relative and her own father has also come to light from Palakkad, Kerala, a few days ago. The other day, Don Bosco CHILDLINE, Thiruvananthapuram, swooped down on a house at Nedumangad, following a tip-off, and rescued a nine year old girl who has been sexually abused by her step-father. At Aalakode, in Kannur District of Kerala, the case of a teen-age girl who had been sexually abused for the past six years by her father and five other men, with the support of her mother, has been reported in the media, recently. It is alleged that she was forced into prostitution for money.

As per statistics of Crime Bureau, Kerala State, till October 2013 there have been 493 incidents of rape against children (this is 38 cases more than 2012 which is 455), 29 cases of murder, 94 cases of kidnapping and abduction. During the same period, 817 cases of other crimes against children have also been recorded in the State. This is already 153 more crimes compared to the entire 2012, which recorded 664 cases.

Table showing Annual Statistics of Crimes against Children in Kerala

Oct. 2013
No. of Crimes


Table showing the child population (0-6) of Kerala in 2001 and 2011
Population (0-6)

The fact that every year, the number of crimes against children in the State of Kerala is on the increase, in spite of the fact that the population of Kerala is declining, is a matter of serious concern.

‘Why is there so much of mindless crime against innocent children in Kerala?’ is the obvious question raised by any concerned citizen. Certainly, the question calls for serious scientific investigation. However, dealing with children and children’s issues for a considerable number of years in Kerala, particularly those at situations of risk such as children on the streets, I wish to make the following observations which, I feel, could be some of the contributing factors of crimes against children in Kerala. 

1.      Rising Family Break-up
In any family break up children suffer the most, particularly if they are very young. Divorces and husband-wife separations begin with family quarrels. Often these quarrels are accompanied by prolonged verbal abuse and violence, the adverse impact of which on children is tremendous. Children who often sense some trouble but do not understand the issues involved get confused and that adds to their mental agony. Sometimes scores are settled by the warring couples by unleashing violence on their children. Their innocent minds are also twisted and vitiated by both parties, in their turn, by levelling allegations against the other. In some cases the quarrelling couples sponsor one or more of their children to manipulate them and to get them on their side. Naturally the child who speaks and works for one party get the inevitable thrashing from the other party! In situations where a second woman or a second man is involved, the children of the first woman or man are treated in the most inhuman ways to make them know that they are not to be seen around; and in some cases they are even done to death! The child is again the sufferer under the step-parents who almost invariably are discriminatory towards their step-children. With the number of divorce cases going up in an unprecedented manner, violence on children is going to increase. In a report appeared in April 2013, Kerala accounted for 1.96 lakh of the nation's 23.43 lakh divorced or separated men/women, which is 8.37% of total divorcees in India.

2.      Working Parents
Globalization and IT revolution have generated new class of employments and working patterns that have resulted in new life-styles and social paradigms. The number of working women have gone up, commuting between home and workplace located in different towns or cities taking its toll on their already shrinking time, have put today’s parents in a tight corner for sparing time to be with their children. Some parents carry all the tensions of the workplace to their homes and often children will be the first victims of their anger and frustration, as the saying goes: ‘When the master has a bad day, the dog cries’. Parents who send their children for tuition classes, often to keep them occupied and to be under supervision in their absence, do not get time to play their role as parents in the character formation of their children. Some modern parents have begun to believe that they are fulfilling all their parental duties by meeting the material needs and schooling of their children.
The role of parents in the human formation of their children is irreplaceable. Their guidance, direction, mentoring, love, affection, protection, moral and emotional support are all essential elements that go to form healthy and balanced children. Inability of parents to spend quality time with their children is the fundamental cause of growth of problematic children in the society. Lacking wholesome parental care at home, children turn to misguided elements outside for guidance, and form warped characters themselves. They will be the trouble makers in the school and elsewhere provoking others to resort to violence. One can only imagine the kind of imbalance, neglect and violence these children will exhibit to their children in their turn as parents.

3.      Deteriorating Mental Health
The psychological health of the Kerala society seems to be deteriorating. The World Health Organization conservatively estimated in 2008 that Kerala had a mental health disorder prevalence of 58 per 1000 population and a severe mental health disorder prevalence of 10-20 per 1000 population (WHO 2008). Kerala’s reported morbidity rate of self-perceived physical and mental ill-health is double the national average of India. It also recorded the fourth highest suicide rate in India in 2009, two and a half times the national average. A careful analysis of the case-studies of Don Bosco CHILDLINE, Thiruvananthapuram, showed that the majority of the child abuses were directly linked to the mental disorders of parents or siblings. Most of the child-abuse and child violence cases reported in the media recently clearly points out that only those with personality disorders and psychological illnesses could unleash such mindless violence towards innocent children.
However, mental illness is stigmatized in Kerala due to poor understanding of common mental disorders. There are several super-speciality hospitals and therapy centres in Kerala for all physical ailments and people are happy to frequent them unlike hospitals and centres for mental disorders. But by not treating mental health issues, due to social stigma, the situation is continuing to cause irreparable damage to the Kerala society.

4.      Role of Modern Media and Communication
The unprecedented digital technological explosion has created a digital divide between generations in the use of technological devices such as mobile phone, computer, internet, television, etc. Older parents belonging to the poorer sections of the society lacking the knowledge and skills in the use of these technologies and parents who are insensitive to the adverse consequences being unable to appropriately supervise their children, run the risk of their children, who are quick and smart, being perverted accessing age-inappropriate media contents through these media devices. Access to sexually explicit media contents by today’s children is more wide-spread than in the previous generation. There is a glut in the media world of movies, websites, and video games with raw depiction of cruelty, violence, terror, revenge taking, shooting scenes, mafia-don culture and display of lethal weapons. Overexposure to such material at an impressionable age can cause irreparable damage to their psychological balance. One need not be surprised if children who are unable to distinguish between the real world and the virtual world develop behavioural abnormalities and turn out to be abusive and violent parents in the future.

5.      Alcoholism and Drug Abuse
Alcoholism and drug abuse can destroy families and inflict psychological damage to children. Studies have shown an intimate correlation between alcohol abuse and domestic violence which is often fatal not only for the partners but also children. Domestic violence and victimization of children take place due to increased alcoholism prevalent in the present Kerala Society. Studies have found substantial proportions of Kerala's road accidents, divorces, instances of spousal abuse and suicides directly alcohol-related. The Economic Survey Review, 2012, of Kerala showed that liquor consumption in Kerala was more than 1.76 gallons (about 8 litres) per person, followed by Maharastra and Punjab, making it the state with highest per capita consumption of liquor in the country. The national average is two litres. While 15-20 per cent of the population consumes liquor in the country, the figure for Kerala is 30 per cent, says the A.P. Udayabhanu Commission which probed the state’s alcohol consumption trends.
Another study showed that when the average age of starting consumption of liquor in Kerala was19 years in 1986 it has fallen to 13 in 2001. There are reports now in Kerala of the prevalence of use of alcohol among upper primary school children. Children are greatly influenced by alcoholic parents. It is surprising that a state which is high in human development indices (literacy, life expectancy, birth rate, infant mortality) scores very low on data related to alcohol use, such as road accidents, divorce, spousal abuse, crime and suicide. Recently a number of High School and Plus Two have been apprehended from different parts of Kerala for drug abuse. Some of the drug pedlars also have been arrested in this connection.

6.      Laxity in Implementation of Laws
India has enacted adequate legislations to provide care and protection to children. Many of these laws are based on international standards. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) 2012, the latest law to stop sexual violence against children, is also quite comprehensive. And yet, the problem lies in the proper implementation of these laws. The first stage where the implementation gets derailed is at the level of booking of the cases; the law enforcement authorities fail to book cases under the appropriate and relevant sections of the law, either under pressure from political interference and corruption or lack of awareness and ignorance of the law. As a result the criminals and culprits often go unpunished and victims do not get justice and feel frustrated and betrayed.

It would be naïve to presume that the causes indicated above for the perpetration of the abuse of and violence against children to be exhaustive. However, the fact remains, that abuse of and violence against children are on the increase; hence, the issues discussed above need serious attention being paid by the society, particularly the duty-bearers. Some of these situations have arisen as a result of the socio-economic upheavals occurring globally. These would require the nations to address them on a global scale. And yet, there are remedial measures which could be initiated by the state governments and the various existing child-intervention systems. These could be long-term and short-term remedies, some of which I wish to propose below:

a.      Care and Protection of Children of Litigating Parents
Broken families being one of the causes of violence against children, it is imperative that the society puts in place mechanisms to move out children form such families to places of safety. In feuding families, to begin with, each parent starts pulling their children to his or her side causing confusion and mental agony in them. As soon as the divorce litigation process begins, appropriate authorities should intervene to separate the children from the parents with possibility to interact periodically with both parents separately, in the best interest of the children. As soon as the litigation processes are completed or the family situation is normalized, the children could be restored to the family or the parties concerned as per court orders. This will protect children from the trauma of constant family quarrels, violent persuasions and intimidation to take sides, considerably reducing the adverse impact.

b.      Teachers as Carers and Mentors
In the changed social scenario of the new generation families of Kerala with both parents employed, there is need for schools to go beyond mere academic formation and assume greater responsibility in the grooming of children. The fact that the children are in school for most part of the day should be used by teachers to supplement what their parents are unable to give so as to make education of children more integral. Hence, going beyond the intellectual, physical and talent enhancement, schools need to be a nursery where children are groomed for life. School syllabus and curriculum need to be redrafted to cater to the forming of today’s children to face today’s society. A new generation of teachers has to be prepared who are skilled in spotting and mentoring the mental, psychological and behavioural issues of children. Establishment of a parent-teacher formative partnership with frequent communication should become a norm in every school. Keeping a permanent file for every child, recording the progress of a child in all aspects of life is a must. A new teacher must study the file and know each child before interacting with them.

c.       Psychological Health Assessment
Another helpful practice towards developing a psychologically mature generation would be to make all children undergo periodic psychological assessment by Clinical Psychologists in schools in collaboration with their parents. Early detection and appropriate intervention in time can, not only prevent individuals from developing behavioural problems, but also helps them to consciously work on themselves to keep a healthy psychological balance. Proper guidance and medical assistance should be provided to those who require it. Children can thus graduate into mature adulthood capable of forming healthy families.

d.      Media Education and Laws
With the electronic and print media promoting a permissive culture with commercial motives putting out a lot of material in the public domain apparently for the adult population, no one seems to have any control over children accessing them. Lack of effective laws and inefficient application of the existing laws have aggravated the situation. However the fact remains that our children are over exposed to inappropriate media material too early in life, particularly on sex and violence. While enacting effective laws to control such material, ensuring the implementation of these laws, promoting child-friendly media material, etc. remain as the suitable action to be taken, though they all have their limitations. Therefore, a massive media education in schools integrated into the regular school curriculum seems to be the most effective strategy to counter the contaminating and damaging impact of the current media on children. The digital divide can be overcome through providing of intensive education to parents in computer, internet, mobile and media in general.

e.      Preventive Education
The few recently reported incidents exposing the disease of alcoholism and drug abuse fast spreading among young children of Kerala is a wake-up call to the State to launch massive intervention programmes to save the Kerala society from self-annihilation. Launching a series of effective awareness programmes, putting in place a fool-proof monitoring system in school-campuses, a sustained surveillance on drug-peddlers, etc. are right steps in this direction. However, strengthening children’s organisations such as Child Rights’ Clubs in schools can effectively detect, monitor such problems and help to nip them in the bud.

f.        Laws for Children
Effective implementation of laws and putting in place the necessary structures for their proper implementation as stated in the applicable laws are necessary for preventing violence and crimes against children. It is so surprising that Kerala, the most literate State in India, has succeeded in setting up the State Child Rights Commission in the last week of December 2013, eight years after the Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005 came into being! The Special Juvenile Police Units as per the requirement of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) act 2000 are still to be set up!
The JJ Act, certainly, is a good legal instrument that protects children in many ways; however it still has some drawbacks. For instance, children who are physically abused have very little respite in the JJ Act; the maximum punishment as per section 23 for physical abuse of children is six months in jail! The IPC is not of much help either because there is no special provision for children and violence against children needs to be treated on a different plane because self defence often is not possible for a child. The principle of natural justice which mandates to ‘hear the other party’ need not be applied in violence against children because we cannot consider younger children as capable of offending an adult.  Besides IPC considers children below 7 as ‘doli incapax’ (ie, incapable of committing a crime) In cases of violence against such children there is no requirement hearing the offender. It is high time that physical violence against children be taken as a grave offence that invites a greater quantum of punishment.
Measures such as compulsory education till the age of 18 could bring down rate of crime among children in the state. Banning all child labour below the age of 18 could well be implemented in Kerala as the families are economically quite well-placed. Setting up special courts in Kerala to deal with crimes against children will also go a long way in bringing speedy justice to children. All these require enactment of new laws.