Incidents of child abuse are hard facts that appear periodically in the newspapers almost everyday, leaving one to wonder why, after all, is the childhood so extolled by our poets, glorified by our leaders and sanctified by various religions ? Was it not Jesus Christ who exhorted his disciples: "Suffer little children, forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the Kingdom of heaven" (Matthew, 19:14)? It was William Wordsworth for whom childhood was a period of unsullied joy and spiritual bliss. When William Faulkner begins the chapter on Joe’s childhood in Light in August with a significant line, "memory believes before knowing remebers, he traces therewith the unconscious legacy of the child to the man. Nearer home, Jawaharlal Nehru and many of our leaders considered children "the nation’s most precious resource".
Occurrence or recurrence of incidents of child abuse shatter the semblance of well-being of the adult world, awakening them from their slumber. The game of blaming and counter-blaming starts. The parents blame the authorities, the authorities vent their anger on neglectful parents and then they all heave sighs lamenting the degradation of basic social values. In the bargain, the child and his/her trauma are forgotten. Hardly any one seems concerned to question: What would be the extent of damage to the psyche of the little one and how should he or she be treated so as to rehabilitate him or her and make him or her a healthy future citizen.
Factors like neglect, torture, mutilation of children in the forms of castration, circumcision or imposed painful beautification as prevalent in some societies, parental oppression, terrorisation of children for fun or fun-ensuring conformity, sodomy and other sexual abuses tell upon the child’s psychology and hinder his growth to complete humanness. There occurs a small crack within. The loss of self takes place quietly, without anybody noticing it and the child suffers.
It hardly needs to be stressed that juvenile delinquents, perverts, sadists and the psychologically disturbed are individuals who have lost their real self – the inner core which helps a person achieve a healthy view of life.
What Gabriela Mistral, the Noble Laureate Chilean poet once said could be reiterated here : We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning our children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time when his/her bones are being formed, his/her blood is being made… To him/her we cannot answer "Tomorrow." His/her name is "Today".
"Humankind owes the child the best it has," says the U.N. Charter on the Human Rights of the Child. Nearer home, Sudhir Kakar, psychologist, agrees that the nature of an individual’s encounter with his/her social, familial and cultural environs profoundly influences the quality and dynamics of social relations throughout his/her life. The rights of the child have been classified by the U.N. under the traditional headings: civil, political, economic, social and cultural. A child has a right to a name, nationality, protection from torture and maltreatment. Their economic rights include the right to the benefits of social security, the right to a standard of living adequate to ensure proper development and protection from exploitation at work. Their social rights give them the benefit of health and access to medical services, protection from abduction and sexual exploitation and the regulation of adoption. Under the cultural rights are grouped the right to education, access to appropriate recreation and leisure, and participation in artistic and cultural activities.
These rights underscore the fact that children’s fundamental rights to survival, protection and development must be guarded by providing them with certain facilities. This is, in fact, adult responsibility and calls for action if adults fail, the very structure on which the rights are based, crumbles and becomes a farce.
In India, though much is being said and done to ameliorate the child’s condition and ensure his rights, the ground reality belies the efforts done in this direction. Even the most basic right, from which other rights emanate- the right to survival - is endangered. There are millions of children suffering from malnutrition, living in deplorable conditions, slogging in work-places and undergoing inhuman treatment. The girl child’s right to survival is even more tenuous. Far from enjoying a happy, healthy childhood, a large segment of our children drag the burden of existence.
In the Indian social context, however, no sweeping statement can really be made on the condition of children.The society, compartmentalised into various sections and subsections, has different norms for different groups. In order to know the reality of a child’s life we could broadly divide the children into four groups to understand their specific problems: the children below poverty-line (both urban and rural), the middle-class children, children belonging to the upper strata, and finally, the girl child.
Children of parents below poverty line are the worst sufferers. A recent survey records that India has the world’s largest number of illiterates and child labourers. More than eighty-two million children between the ages of 6 and 14 have no resource to education. Though most of the States have made primary education compulsory, there is hardly any effective implementation of the schemes.
Instead of being sent to school, children are employed in tea-stalls, restaurants, household work, or they care for cattle, tend younger children, collect firewood and work in fields. The fate of these children depends on the whims and fancies of their employers. A large number of children work in factories, cottage industries and other jobs in unhygienic environs. The exploitation continues uninterrupted even though both the Directive Principles of State Policy and a part of the Fundamental Rights, has laid down in no uncertain terms that "the State shall direct its policy towards securing the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender-aged children are not abused". Despite the unhealthy and exploitative work conditions, parents continue to send their children ominously to the dark and dingy factories for paltry wages.
The children belonging to the higher strata of society have other scourges than the ones suffered by their less fortunate brethren. They are the victims of parental neglect and apathy. They are often lonely, dejected and rejected. The parents are so pre-occupied with their lives, their performance scale and achievements that they forget the child’s existence and his/her need for love and belonging. Weighing every human emotion on the scale of monetary gains, they tend to lose sight of the authentic.
The girl children are a harder lot. These unfortunate ones coming from poor backgrounds end up by being sexually abused. Cases of rape, flesh trafficking and the rising number of young sex workers speak of the social perversions. These children are kept in slavery and subjected to mercenary exploitation by adults. The status and action report of the Central Advisory Board of India states that at least 15 per cent of all sex workers in the country are under the age of 15 . Approximately 25 per cent are between the age of 16 and 18.
Not that all girl children in the poor sections of society end up in the flesh trade. There are others who work as domestic servants but their lot is no better. They are maltreated or mutilated and sometimes sexually abused. In the lower classes and lower middle-classes, they are subjected to inequalities. While the male child gets the lion’s share of food, clothes and relatively better education, the unfortunate female child has to bear the family burden of cooking, washing and cleaning and make do with minimum facilities. Rejection and ambivalence towards girls always work in subtle and insidious manner.
Childhood is a unique period when a person has intrinsic desires for spiritual health and life. Uncorrupted by the adult world, an unsuspecting child recognises the one reality that he/she lives. For him/her, the past or the future have no existence. His/her consciousness is not split between them but is rather free to discover them through love.
A happy and healthy child is an asset to the grown-ups. Through his/her smile, the society learns to smile.