Feature story

Keeping kids safe

The menace of child sexual abuse has been put under the spotlight in Chandrapur in Maharashtra and the effort has brought government officials, parents and teachers together

Keeping children safe from predators and abuse — that’s the responsibility and the mandate of a dozen-strong team of government officials in Chandrapur district in eastern Maharashtra.

One of the most backward districts of the state, Chandrapur has in recent years woken up to the incidence of child abuse cases. In response, the district authorities have started a number of initiatives to counter the menace, an important one of which is the creation of a special unit under the government’s Women and Child Development Department (WCDD).

The team is always on the alert for cries of help from children, especially teenaged girls, who are often victims of sexual assault. Many of these girls are lured with promises of marriage and then trafficked, sometimes outside the state.

“We get calls on our helpline from rural girls who have been sexually abused and are desperate for support,” says Ajay Ramrao Sakarkar, who leads WCDD in Chandrapur. “We immediately get in touch with the district collector or the superintendent of police and initiate action.”

Children at the Pombhurna primary school in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district; students from classes I to X are covered under the campaign to prevent child abuse

Priyanka Pimpleshede, one of the team members, recalls the first time she came across such a case. “The girl was just five and her neighbour, a 15-year-old boy, had tried to rape her,” she says. “I went to their home but the mother was reluctant to file a complaint and the girl did not want to speak about it.” Ms Pimpleshede persisted over the next few days. She became friendly with the child and got her to talk about what happened.

Ms Pimpleshede also talks about how teenaged girls are enticed by men — several of them local truck drivers in their 20s — to run away with them. “One victim was addicted to tobacco and she was in a physical relationship with a neighbour who would buy her the stuff.”

The biggest challenge the team faces is the silence of those preyed upon, as well as their families. “More often than not, parents are reluctant to come forward with complaints,” says Ms Pimpleshede. It’s tough to pursue cases as victims are often pressured by their families to keep quiet, adds Mr Sakarkar. “Our job is to counsel them as well as the victim, and we urge them to file complaints.”

Safeguarding innocence

The big weapons in the fight to protect children are two acts in the Indian Penal Code: the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (Pocso) and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children’s Rules) Act. But the system requires victims to speak up before law and justice can be pursued. And that is where the Tata Trusts come into the picture.

In 2018, faced with a burgeoning number of child crimes, the district administration requested the Trusts for help in implementing Pocso in the region. That involved strengthening the system and mechanisms at the district level to respond effectively in protecting children.

The Trusts partnered the district administration and, in February 2018, flagged off a pilot project to make Chandrapur the first Pocso-enabled district in the state. The objective was to work with teachers, parents, district officials and other stakeholders to build awareness about recognising and handling child abuse incidents. It meant getting the community to participate in fighting the good fight.

The pilot project was conducted in the Pombhurna area over 10 months and its success has led to a second phase that is expected to be rolled out soon. A large part of the project was about engaging with the school ecosystem: teachers, non-teaching staff, students, parents and school committees. According to Mr Sakarkar, the pilot project has made a difference and many victims have now started to come forward and talk about what they went through.

The stakeholders were sensitised to the issue of child abuse, the laws that help prevent it, and the ways to monitor, report and respond so that children remain protected.“Everybody should be aware about the laws covering offences against children,” says Mr Sakarkar, “and the Tata Trusts programme is essential in spreading this word around.”

Communication has been a key weapon in the war against child abuse and the prime intent was to get people to come forward, to open up. Getting people to discuss the issue was an exercise fraught with difficulties. “The major challenge was how to communicate the right message to parents about protection of their children from sexual abuse,” says Abhijeet Nirmal, programme manager, child protection and human trafficking, Tata Trusts.

It was addressed through multi-pronged reach strategy; the message was strategically developed in a way that no individual was pin-pointed and, child protection and well-being formed the core of the messaging. As child sexual abuse could occur within the family and also in school, along with skits and wall paintings, individual as well as group meetings were organised to educate parents.

“In the initial days we found that parents, fearing disrepute, would try to suppress incidents,” says Jagdish Raut of Janseva Gramin Vikas, the NGO that partners the Trusts in implementing the project in Pombhurna.

Out with social fear

To counter this social fear, public meetings were held in all 59 villages of Pombhurna. Parents were made aware of the need to talk to their sons and daughters. They were told that their children needed to be taught about what constitutes abuse, how temptations and lures are used, and why they should immediately tell their parents about any such incident.

“We set up groups, comprising children in the 7-to-14 age group, in all the villages,” adds Mr Raut. “We made them aware about the dangers of allowing others to touch them.” There are 1,500 schools in the district and the NGO intends to work with all of them.

Schools were a big part of the sensitisation campaign. With sex education being taboo in India, not many in schools talk about the issue, says Parag Joshi, who works with the Chandrapur administration and whose job it is to ensure the implementation of Pocso in the district.

“The government has collaborated with the Tata Trusts and other entities to focus on students (both girls and boys) from standards I to X and make them aware about sexual and other abuse,” explains Mr Joshi. Village councils have been pulled into the project and villagers informed about how to file complaints.

There’s more in this fight against child abuse: district official taking an official oath to prevent child abuse, street plays on the subject being held in the villages, and posters and wall paintings to highlight the issue. Additionally, about 100 teachers from 73 schools in the villages have participated in child safety programmes.

An awareness camp on child sexual abuse at a village school in Pombhurna in Chandrapur

Concerted action

Another protective measure taken by WCDD is urging parents to not give mobile phones to their children who are under 18. “Schools conduct checks of the bags that children carry,” says Mr Sakarkar. “And we have police vehicles going around school buildings to prevent perpetrators from targeting girls.” Officials also visit the red-light area in Chandrapur to interact with the children of prostitutes.

An important tool in dealing with child abuse is a toll-free number for youngsters (especially girls) facing problems. Priyanka Asudkar, the Pocso coordinator for Chandrapur district, says the 24-hour helpline gets a lot of calls, most of them from girl students talking about instances of abuse.

Among the perpetrators are teachers, neighbours and drivers. “Once we hear of a case, we immediately meet the victim and initiate action,” says Ms Asudkar. She refers to one instance where a village schoolteacher used to sexually abuse a student: “We spoke to the committee running the school, met the girl’s parents and convinced them to file a police complaint. The teacher was arrested.”

Besides awareness building and the helpline, WCDD plays another vital role — lending a hand to victims. The challenge, according to Mr Sakarkar, is that victims in the 13-18 age group are traumatised and often refuse medical inspection (under Pocso, only victims up to the age of 12 have to compulsorily undergo medical examination; older children have the right to refuse).

The effort has been to get everybody together. About 50 counsellors and more than a hundred police officials have been trained to help victims. Training sessions on reporting and response have been held for top officials at the district collectorate, the local courts and other official bodies.

The opening of the Pandora’s box on child abuse has had a healthy effect. Youngsters are now stepping up to join the battle. Harshada, a high school student, says that she and her friends have formed a group of 15 girls to raise awareness about possible attacks. “We brief the other students about the possible assaults that can happen in buses, other places and even in our homes,” she says. “Most of them did not know about these possibilities.”

The Tata Trusts pilot project has had tongues wagging in the best possible way. Awareness of child abuse is growing into a willingness to fight it and the heroes of this fight are Chandrapur’s ordinary citizens.