Each passing day brings into the headlines another sordid story of a child being abused somewhere in the country. After the initial scandal and outrage, the media scatters to find its next new titillating tale to expose, the public finds distraction in the latest sporting tamasha – consoling itself that such things could not possibly happen to people like them, self-proclaimed experts crawl out of their holes to appear on television debates and blame everything on the wanton promiscuity of the west or the patriarchal oppressiveness of the Hindu society – depending on which deep end of the ideological spectrum they have gone over, while the family of the victim is left to pick up the scraps of normalcy in their lives even as they deal with the subsequent abuse of their humanity at the hands of the police and judiciary.
It is in this context that I was reminded of Bitter Chocolate by Pinki Virani, a short primer on child sex abuse (CSA) in India. Even though the book was written more than a decade ago, little seems to have changed in India. Little seems to have changed for the better, while the access to technology seems to have worsened the situation.
Ignorance of the law or the precedents of judgments is as rampant as ever, despite the overwhelming deluge of information that social media and technology is supposed to make available at our fingertips. For example, how many know that there is a ruling from the 1983 case of Bharwada Bhogibhai Hirjibhai versus the state of Gujarat, “which very clearly opines that if a child maintains it has been sexually abused, corroboration to this effect need not be sourced, the case can proceed beyond looking for technicalities.”
Ignorance on the part of the average citizen could be understood, if not condoned, but what do you say of a learned judge of the Supreme Court, the apex court of India, when the learned lordship proclaimed in a case in May 1996 that “mothers who allege such crimes against the father of the child are ‘mentally sick’ and are ‘unnecessarily spoiling the child’s future prospects for marriage and a happy life.’” Lest one be tempted to limit this lack of sensitivity only to the subcontinent’s shores, it would be pertinent to quote Alred Kinsey, noted author of a study on human sexuality, who wondered and found it “difficult to understand why a child... should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched”.
The brutally sad fact is that much of CSA is perpetrated by those who are trusted by the children. Be it uncles (or aunts – remember that even women can be child abusers), or cousins, or the household servant, or even some elder in the family. This then begs the question: how do you teach your child to not trust even your relatives? The chapter “Prevention than cure” has a number of such suggestions, like “be alert to small changes in behaviour”, “do not force your children to hug and kiss others”, “teach your child to speak up and ask several questions if it is not comfortable with what is being done to, or around, it”, “teach the child the difference between a ‘good touch’ and a ‘bad touch’”, “know where your child is at all times”. In this age of dual income parents, the child is often left to the care of the aayah, or in the company of other children, or at a post-school day care – knowing where the child is is not the same as trusting who the child is with.
While Goa has for long been the child sex abuse capital of the nation, attracting paedophiles from civilised countries like “England and Germany, avuncular looking men distributing foreign chocolate”, other parts of India are not safe either. International networks of paedophiles work together and “share information on the safest places to visit in the world.... India and other South Asian countries are slowly replacing South East Asia as the venue of choice for the tourist sex industry...”
This was more than a decade ago. In the intervening years, has there been an increase in prosecutions against paedophiles? Hardly, one would say. Indeed, with the dramatic rise in the overt sexualisation and objectification of teenagers in Indian films and advertisements, and the coterminus acceptance of “freer” sexual mores, it should come as little surprise to anyone if the incidence of CSA also shows a corresponding increase in India.
Perhaps the single biggest cocoon of denial that people wrap themselves in comes in the “people-like-us” colour. These things simply cannot happen to people like us. Certainly not “in a high-rise at Mumbai’s upmarket Cuffe Parade”, where the mother walked out on the marriage and her two children after “she caught them red-handed in their bed, with a pretty boy from the neighbourhood.”
Part 3, titled “Notebook Three” is perhaps the most useful. Some of the sections in it are “prevention than cure”, “dealing with disclosure”, “child protection units”, “exit cycle”, “to the victim”, “healing yourself”. There is a list of books for further reading, and a list of helplines in eight cities.
The book is short – and even though you would wish that such a book were as short as possible, it really needs to be much longer. There are so many aspects of CSA that need to be examined, brought to light, and explained that a book several times this one’s size may still be insufficient.
The psychology of the perpetrators, the lifelong psychological devastation it wreaks on the victims, the mindset of a society that first refuses to acknowledge the crime and subsequently wants to hush the whole thing up, the sorry state of the existing legal framework, and so much more. These issues are touched upon this book, but in all fairness deserve more coverage. This book is a start, a depressingly frank start, but it needs to be followed up by much more.
And above all, this book must be read by everyone. We owe it to ourselves.
Abhinav Agarwal is a a software professional in the field of analytics, data visualizations, and spatial BI. A computer engineer, and a gold medalist from the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore, his interests are reading, writing, and photography. His tweets at @abhinavagarwal. All views expressed are personal.