Child Abuse, Pornography on the Rise in India’s COVID-19 Lockdown?
“The frustration and agitation people are feeling at home - another way this is coming out is child pornography.”
The nation is at a standstill - families are huddled indoors, schools are shut and anxiety and frustration levels are at peak.
Home is not always a safe space, and post reports of spikes in domestic violence helplines, comes more sobering news: The Childline India helpline received 50 percent more calls than usual during the first 11 days of lockdown.
FIT spoke to Vikas Puthran of Childline India Foundation (CIF):
“In the 10 days of the lockdown - between 20 and 31 March, we saw a 50% increase from the typical period - normally would receive two lakh calls but this time we received around three lakh. From these, we conducted 4800 interventions where we physically went to the child in need. Out of this, only 30 per cent were relating to protection from abuse (about 1400 cases). In a year, generally, we get about 9 million calls.”Vikas Puthran of Childline
Earlier, a media report has claimed that Childline had received 92,000 calls related to abuse. Chitrakala Acharya, Head of Programmes at CIF, clarified that the 92000 number shared covered calls for child protection issues from begging to sexual abuse. “It was misinterpreted as mentioned in the press brief.”
Despite the glitch in numbers, there is a grave need to investigate what happens to child abuse rates in India's lockdown and if we are doing enough to protect child rights in this tough, new situation?
Change.org has a petition asking authorities to publicize the Child Helpline Number on television and cartoon channels so that children know where to get help.
Puthran adds, “In a year, calls reporting abuse may be 20 per cent but now if it is 30 per cent we can’t jump to conclusions and say there is a rise in abuse. It will have to be looked at for longer and not just for these 10 days. Yes, even 3 lakh calls is bad, but our focus is on addressing the problems not analysing data.”
Child Abuse in a Lockdown is Complex
In the current climate, we assume- if you have a home, you are safe. But how do you reach out to the children in need, when the adults in charge are the abusers? Or when no one else - no school teachers, no neighbours - sees the child?
How does one reach a child in need in a lockdown?
“So far, there is no system in place to reach homes,” says Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation (KSCF)'s Policy Director, Niharika Chopra. Harleen Walia, deputy director of Childline India, suggested the helpline be declared an essential service during the lockdown. Chopra added that special passes should be issued for social workers too to reach homes and children.
As someone who works in the field, she says it’s safe to assume there will be some form of increase abuse. “There’s a lockdown and things are happening behind closed doors.”
“93 per cent of abuse happens by someone known to the child. This is a terrifying number for the lockdown.”Niharika Chopra, KSCF
In times of stress, violence often increases. Dr Manjeer Mukherjee, senior director at child rights NGO Arpan says that, “The pandemic has created a situation where there is uncertainty, and the lockdown has restricted movement, leading to potential lack of income. There is overcrowding at home with many people being around 24*7. Children are also out of school. All of this creates high-stress home environments and children are generally exposed to diverse forms of abuse, including sexual abuse.”
“For a significant number of abusers especially in cases of incest, their sexual involvement with children is situational and occurs as a result of life stresses – hence, there is a high probability of sexual abuse increasing.”Dr Manjeer Mukherjee,
To not focus on the number would be wise as they are not always the best indicators of a complex issue in unprecedented times. For example, globally, we’ve seen a reduction in calls to domestic abuse helplines - but this actually indicates a much worse reality.
“While the number of calls is something hard to comment on, in situations of anxiety and stress, it is likely that abuse of children, including sexual abuse, can increase. At the same time, children in locked down state will also find challenging to reach out to a helpline as the abuser is around,” says Dr Mukherjee.
“One of the biggest reasons why violence perpetrates is because of silence,” said Sonal Mehta, regional director of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to The Quint.
The silence leads to shame, stigma, misinformation and more and results in a lack of reporting - and right now, this is magnified by the lockdown which impedes reporting.
Outside of discussions of child labour, child abuse is often perpetrated in closed areas, behind closed doors - be it at home or in school. The child often does not know what’s happening but alert neighbours, teachers or other guardians can alert authorities. “Regardless of the numbers, the situation needs to be taken seriously,” says Chopra.
In a story FIT did on cancer patients in the lockdown, we found that oncologists and palliative care counsellors proactively called their patients to check on them. Could such a system be employed here? Surely there would be a database of offenders, and with government action from a block or district level, this may help fill the gap - or at least warn adults that systems were in place to monitor abuse. Chopra adds that there are in talks with government bodies to set up protection and monitoring systems.
Abuse Can Spike in a Lockdown; Reported Increase in Child Pornography
“The frustration and agitation people are feeling at home - another way this is coming out is child pornography.”Niharika Chopra, KSCF
In a new report released by India Child Protection Fund on 13 April, India’s dark underbelly lies exposed in the lockdown. The data shows that a “significant segment of this spike in pornography can be attributed to the demand for child pornography content.”
During this time when most people are home-bound, internet usage has spiked. This means that children are browsing the Internet much more, often unsupervised. The ICPF report adds that this may lead to increased chances of exploitation by paedophiles and sex traffickers online. Strong deterrence is needed through online, government-approved videos, online campaigns to educate children and parents and cyber protection trackers.
“This is a beast we are not ready to face,” says Chopra.
Dr Mukherjee adds, “The situation is aggravated by children’s lack of access to child care organizations and inability to connect with them from a safe space as the abuser is around them.”
The unorganised sector is very badly hit right now, and “it must be a focus area,” says Chopra. In poverty, it’s always the women and children who are impacted the most and Chopra says that sexual abuse and child trafficking is a worry in the expected incoming economic slowdown where exploitation, cheap labour and desperation mix.
It’s important to deconstruct the impacts of post-lockdown poverty on women and children particularly in order to specifically address it.
Intersections of Child Abuse: Child Labourers
India has the largest population of children in the world - but not all 472 million have safe homes. What happens to the homeless children, the ragpickers, the ones who fled abuse and beg on the streets?
There is no system to protect these children or even reach out to them at this time, not without special passes for “non-essential” NGO workers.
Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna, an NGO that works with urban poor children living on the street and under flyovers told the BBC that they are using technology to reach them. Here awareness on apps like TikTok can reach the most vulnerable.
The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights has been distributing food to street children and vulnerable families in the Indian capital but the problems seem insurmountable as the lockdown extends till 3 May.
Chopra says that another issue currently is of child labourers, who are trapped and suddenly without any form of payment. “We are liaising with governments to rescue and temporarily house the children - we have police help to manage the transport for now.”
Online Videos, Police Action: There’s Help Available
Chopra says they are mobilizing existing networks- the Delhi slum communities with 7,000 households, including over 15,000 children.
“We have activists and child leaders who report regularly. We also have child-friendly villages in Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh who we are in touch with.”Niharika Chopra, KSCF
KSCF’s Bal Mitra Gram programme protects 25,000 families, covering a population of over 1.25 lakh including 72,000 children in rural India.
Right now, the main goal for most Indians is survival. What’s reaching homes is food, and one of the ways we can reach residential communities is by sensitising volunteers. Information and helplines could be distributed by police in their check-ins and Chopra says they could keep an eye out or talk to children present separately for a minute.
“One of the ways to deal with this is awareness - to parents, to students through digital classrooms. We are in talks with the government for this for them to include information on child sexual abuse in government and public classes.”Niharika Chopra, KSCF
Chopra tells me about the heartbreaking topic of ‘silent calls’ when it is presumed children dial 1098 but don’t know what to say. It is up to counsellors to reassure them and ensure their safety.
“Of the calls we are receiving, we can ensure they are being followed up and police action is taken if required.”
There are guidelines by UNICEF and other organisations for parents to encourage these conversations at home as well.
t can be hard for parents and carers to talk to children or even acknowledge Child Sexual Abuse.
We agree that fear is not an effective teaching tool, but confidence is. Teaching children about personal safety from a young age provides them with knowledge and skills to prevent Child Sexual Abuse and seek support in case of any violations. Parents can play a critical role by making children aware of personal safety as part of family safety rules. They can start conversation on personal safety and help children assess unsafe situations and touches through their feelings. However, most often either children do not have the vocubulary to articuate feelings or does not have the adequate space to express it.
According to the KSCF, their pan India campaign #KeepChildrenSafeAtHome on awareness about child sexual abuse, at home and virtually, includes a coalition of over 100 civil society organizations.
Post-Lockdown: Focus on Mental Health & Physical Safety for Children
The post-lockdown impact could see a rise in bonded labour and child trafficking and so urgent action - like passing the anti-tracking bill in Parliament is vital.
“It’s too soon for us to know what can be anticipated but we do know for sure there will be a need for psychosocial assistance for the long term,” says Puthran.
But for the most part, it will be an exacerbation of issues felt already - abuse, child labour.
What’s needed is more specific action focussed on child protection, and more cross-pollination between civil societies and government bodies to achieve widespread results.
“The Centre needs greater budgetary allocation for children as a most vulnerable group and an economic package is needed as a necessary measure to protect them from abuse and exploitation, both sexual and economic.”Niharika Chopra, KSCF
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