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[Articles & Essays - R] 

Child Abuse In The Land Of Child Worshippers

Uma Ranganathan, April 13, 2007

Felix is my friend Ariela's four year old son. One of the nicest memories I have of his visit to India a couple of years back is of the way he connected with the waiters and odd job boys who used to hang around the seaside guest house, where we happened to be staying in Goa.

Seconds within our walking into the restaurant, Venis, Claudie, Anthony or one of the other young men working for the establishment would swoop down on the little boy and spirit him away, bouncing him on their shoulders, playing hide and seek, pointing out the pigs or the dogs in the backyard. Ariela and I were grateful to them of course because it gave us enough time to sit back over a cup of coffee and jabber about everything under the sun without being interrupted every two minutes by a kid banging on the table with assorted pieces of cutlery, needing its nose wiped or bawling for attention.

"You know", A says to me reflectively at some point, "This would never happen in Germany."

Back in her own country, she feels, people are so preoccupied with themselves, they don't have time for kids. Children in restaurants are frowned at. In public places they are considered a nuisance. 

"Not once have I experienced anything like this back in Munich", she says, nodding at Felix, who giggles with delight in the arms of a young waiter who whirls him around like a mad dervish.

He is having such a good time that when his mother goes round to fetch him to take him back to the room he doesn't want to go with her at all. Today, when I think of Felix monkeying around with the hotel staff however, I can't help also thinking of the four or five year old girl in Bombay whose mother would punish her by scalding her. Or I see before me some young urchin employed in a bidi or a carpet factory in a small town somewhere in the country, being kicked into shape by a sadist of a boss, or some little girl being sexually abused by her father or an uncle, a teacher or close friend of the family. 

India, motherland of paradoxes has come up with a whopper for us to mull  over. A nation wide survey on child abuse, based on 12,000 case studies,  has recently revealed that in this country of child lovers, 53 per cent of all  kids have been exposed to sexual or physical abuse, with Maharashtra  leading the way and Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh close behind. I am anticipating the opinions which will be aired in the next few days or weeks on what needs to be done, the cries of indignation, a plea for laws which ensure severe punishment for offenders.

We will be looking at this theme from the political angle, from the sociological angle and various other angles each of which will offer valid opinions. Yet a part of us will remain cynical because it will recognize the fact that in all these years of analyzing violence, corruption and so many other things in this country we have not been able to change attitudes, to any large extent.

What is it that is lacking? Could it be that merely theorizing about problems and holding seminars all over the place still leaves a huge gap in our understanding of what goes wrong and could it be that the gap is what one might call "self knowledge" or "self awareness?". Confronted by the report on child abuse, Minister for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury now maintains that awareness can be raised through sex education, and one way to do that is to enforce it in schools. The way I see it however is that, although sex education is crucial, especially for youngsters, it is still only one aspect of awareness. 

A person with a deep sense of awareness of his own mind and body, will be aware not only of what is right or wrong for him (or her) in the area of sexuality, but will also develop a fine sense of what relationship itself is about. But this is an area in which many of us Indians fall short. 

Although we are generally, well informed about the country and the world - at least the better educated among us - and although we can rattle off information about the European economy or American politics with aplomb, we seem to be sadly lacking when it comes to the awareness of our own behavior and attitudes - the kind of awareness which lays the basis for a mature and responsible world. This lack seems to me, to begin in the early years itself when a child's curiosity is checked in a myriad ways and the mind is held back from exploring. Often it is not something that another person says to you. You drink in the rules almost with your mother's milk. There are questions you simply don't ask, you leave certain subjects untouched. 

How many of us grew up being able to talk frankly about how we felt about a whole lot of things, ranging from sex, to feelings of sadness or jealousy, just to name a few topics? Little by little our inner freedom begins to be curtailed, and the room in which we are allowed to move around mentally and emotionally, begins to get narrower by the day. We are often not even aware of the ways in which we are restricted. 

What does this have to do with child abuse? The same thing I guess, that it has to do with any kind of deviant behavior. After all what is deviant behavior if not the result of extreme ignorance, frustration and the result of neglect or repression? I am not saying that those who perpetrate horrible acts should be ignored or let off the hook or that we need to turn the other cheek like Christ did (Or at least not all the time). 

But side by side with whatever laws need to be enforced, we also perhaps need to look at ways to create more room for questions that need to be asked but are shelved out of embarrassment, we need to bring back childlike curiosity into our lives, and yes, hard though it is, we need to remind ourselves that the maniacs, fanatics and perverts who shock the hell out of us at times are themselves victims of a repressive society. A society which makes it difficult to truly tell the right apart from wrong, whose foundation only a few, who are either very daring or who have grown up in a liberal environment will dare to question.

Well, those of us who claim they want to live in a better world had best prepare themselves for a long hard struggle to lift the suffocating veil of conditioning from our lives, which is responsible for many of our ills. We need to do it any way we can, through talking with others about our feelings, through writing about it, sometimes even through examining the situation in silence.

It needs to be done through programs, not only on sex education but on education in general, on raising the level of awareness in society. And the first step would be to lift the unspoken ban on taboo subjects and to get a heartfelt discussion going on themes which, while they may initially embarrass us and evoke a lot of negative reaction, are sure in the long run, to ease the pressure which is otherwise waiting to explode like a bomb.

[Having wandered through various fields from special education to environmental conservation, Uma has been working these last fifteen years or so as a psychotherapist, mainly in India. Along with friends and colleagues, she conducts workshops and sessions in self awareness and is looking for people who are interested in creating an environment in which people actually listen to each other. Her book "Bombay to Eternity - memoirs of a laidback Rebel" was published in 2004 by Penguin India.]

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