As the world struggles to fight back a global health crisis, governments across nations have declared a country-wide lockdown and are repeatedly asking their citizens to remain in the safe refuge of their household. Public welfare experts and members of the medical fraternity have also reiterated that staying back at home would help mitigate the chances of getting infected.
While one understands that this statement has been made with the best intentions and keeping public safety in mind – we must also acknowledge that there are several individuals who do not have the privilege of residing in a safe and healthy domestic atmosphere. Several issues like domestic violence, child abuse and a toxic home environment make the lives of these individuals an inescapable living hell.
The mandatory domestic confinement, necessitated by the present lockdown, has aggravated the chances of physical/emotional exploitation and domestic abuse as, in many cases, the perpetrator and victim will be confined in the same home. In this article, we engage with the issue of ‘child abuse’ in the domestic set-up and propose certain measures which might help in tackling the problem during the lockdown.
How is child abuse different from other forms of domestic violence? Why is it difficult to tackle this abuse during the present lockdown?
When we talk about ‘child abuse’ in the domestic sphere we are referring to the mental and/or physical exploitation of children aged below 17 years. These are individuals who are not emotionally mature enough to voice their grievances or escape domestic abuse. Child abuse is very different from domestic violence against women because in the latter case the victims are usually adults, who unlike children, are capable of sharing their grievances with relatives, friends and reaching out to the authorities in extreme cases.
A recent report states, that during this lockdown, the Indian government has received an alarming number of 92,000 complaints of child abuse in just 11 days. While India does have a statute for the protection of children under the Domestic Violence Act of 2005, these laws are of no use in the present extraordinary circumstances. This is because the law mandates the need for a ‘reporting’ of the offence. Since children are not leaving their homes and most of the schools have been shut down – it is impossible for a teacher, school staff, neighbour or social worker to notice an anomaly in the child’s behaviour and consequently, report the chances of domestic abuse by the family member(s). Similarly, the NGOs which regularly monitored and detected such abuses against the underprivileged children residing in slums have been stripped of their mobility, thus, leaving the abused children completely helpless.
In the present circumstances, parents and other adult family members are also under a lot of stress and financial hardships which means that they might intentionally or subconsciously vent their anger on the children in the household. The nature of abuse need not always be physical, it may also be in the form of prolonged emotional-psychological trauma.
Can children be abused on social media?
In the past few weeks, several experts including special rapporteurs at the United Nations have expressed concerns over child abuse on social media. The inability to meet friends in person would prompt most children staying at home to spend long hours on social media. While studying online or exploring various websites they might curiously stumble upon uncharted terrains of the dark web which may contain obscene images for adult entertainment. These sites are known to serve as hunting grounds for sexual offenders looking for naive young minds who can easily be targeted.
A recent report, by India Child Protection Fund (ICPF) informs us that, the past few days have witnessed a disturbing surge in the web searches for words like ‘child pornography’. The organisation’s Chairperson Nivedita Ahuja, tells us that millions of paedophiles and child pornography addicts have taken to the Internet, thus making it extremely unsafe for the youngsters.
Policy suggestions to tackle these problems:
The Indian Central Government has adequate powers under the Domestic Violence Act to form specialised groups or make specific rules to tackle issues related to child domestic abuse. In the usage of the same, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development can issue orders to form Child Welfare Committees (CWC) at the district levels. The CWC’s would comprise six members – [i] the concerned District Magistrate, [ii] the local councillor, [iii] a police officer (not below the rank of sub-inspector), [iv] a certified psychiatrist or child specialist and [v] two volunteers from an NGO.
The CWC’s can be funded and directly monitored by the respective State departments for Women and Child Development. The information database for families having children aged below 17 years may be collected from the concerned Municipality offices. Schools can also be instructed to share the addresses and contact details of their students. This would help the CWC have a better idea of the number of children in every district.
This group, led by the District Magistrate, must collect a detailed weekly/fortnightly report of the child’s well-being from his/her parents or family members. The manner of such collection may be facilitated by an initial visit to every such household coupled with creating a profile-report for every child. This report should contain preliminary observations about the child’s behaviour and assessment of the domestic atmosphere. Upon critical evaluation of the reports, if the CWCs deem necessary, they must have the power to revisit and regularly examine the child in person.
These measures, if adopted, might help in monitoring the welfare of children during the present lockdown and reduce the chances of prolonged child domestic abuse. Before concluding, it must be confessed with all fairness, that the above suggestions are undeniably not immune to critique and infrastructural limitations. However, we do hope, with utmost sincerity, that these recommendations may be considered by policymakers. While we struggle to defeat this pandemic, we cannot let our youngsters get defeated in the process.
Anirban Chanda and Sahil Bansal are fourth year law students at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. The views in this article are personal and not endorsed by any party.