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Child abuse: Why wait till a child is hurt? Why is the survivor forgotten?

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'Child abuse, a word that is met with emotions ranging from sorrow, anger, disgust, shock and the urge to fight for justice but all of them wait, wait till a child is hurt, till a toddler is abused, till the perpetrator has committed a grave crime and till the crime has been reported. Why don't we act earlier? Why wait?' ask many child rights activists.

We try to understand what factors lead to the rising numbers of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act cases.

Child abuse:

Given the recent incident of multiple cases of sexual abuse coming to light in a pre-school in Bengaluru, citizens took to the streets demanding safety for their children in schools on Sunday. What came as a surprise, however, was the police showing solidarity with the protesters. Scores of women constables also held posters demanding that school authorities take responsibility for children's safety.

"When the fight is against any social evil; police will stand shoulder to shoulder with civil society for fighting against it. More so when it comes to child safety," said Additional Commissioner of Police Hemanth Nimbalkar. He addressed the protesters who had gathered demanding action against the pre-school management for attempting to shield an alleged serial child abuser.

These numbers should shock you

If the numbers are anything to go by, the trend is definitely worrying. The National Crime Records Bureau states that 273 cases of child abuse were registered in Bengaluru in 2015 till August. The numbers for 2016 are far more alarming. "Between January to December 2016, a total of 1827 cases of child abuse were registered in Bengaluru alone. The highest number of POCSO cases are registered here. Cases of abuse on toddlers, below the age of 5, are also high in number in Bengaluru," says Kripa Alva, chairperson, Child Rights Commission.

What comes as a bigger shocker though is the conviction rate. "In 2016, the conviction rate stood at 14 per cent. This is definitely not sending out a strong message to the society that child abusers will be brought to the books," she adds. Under the POCSO act, the commission is entitled to get a record of the number of cases involving children from the investigating authorities but the same hasn't happened.

We asked Alva what she thought was the cause of rising number of child abuse cases and she points to poor conviction rate.

The police, however, claim that rise in cases is a result of awareness and the willingness to report cases of sexual abuse. The department believes that the trend shows that people are willing to put their trust in the system and ensure that the accused are behind bars.

A result of system failure?

Many child rights activists believe that the problem lies with the system. The recent incidents have taken place in a pre-school that does not come under the purview of the public instructions department and the child protection policy is not implemented.

"Have you noticed the sudden spurt of kindergarten and pre-schools franchises? Have you ever wondered why? They are not answerable to anyone. They floor the young parents with gadgets, fancy learning equipment, clean premises but who is to question safety," asks a child rights activist who has worked with the child welfare committee in Karnataka.

"The POCSO mandates that any man employed for non-teaching positions should work outside the school premises but that isn't followed. The police is yet to be given full knowledge of the act so that the perpetrators are booked under apt sections. Let them take the prosecutor's help if they want. A strong case from day one will ensure better conviction," Alva adds.

What is the need of the hour

Those involved in campaigning for child rights believe that the onus is on the school, parents, law enforcing authorities as well as society on the whole to ensure child safety. Activists believe that addressing these three core issues can help ensure a safe environment for a child.

Monitoring Review mechanism: The biggest challenge currently seems to be creating a mechanism to review pre-schools and kindergartens that do not come under the purview of the child protection policy. There is an immediate need to constitute a committee that will ensure that schools are held responsible for a child's safety. The committee should ensure implementation of child protection policy to kids below the age of five.

The government should move to recognise pre-schools as legal educational institutes which will pave way for them to be held accountable. 'The business of profit has to end," said an activist who did not want to be named.

Legal awareness for police: Many times irrelevant sections of the POCSO are filed against the accused which allows them to secure. "Let the police department take an advocate's help while filing cases. We have seen perpetrators walking free simple because he/she was not booked under relevant sections of the act. The lack of knowledge also contributes to the case lagging and low conviction rate," says Kripa Alva.

Stop rush for premature schooling: Many activists also believe that the rush to admit a child into the schooling system, formal or informal, has to stop to ensure child safety. "We live in a competitive world and see children as young as two and a half or three being sent to pre-schools. Parents think early schooling will help the child but how will you teach a vulnerable child to differentiate between a good touch a a bad touch. Let the child at least be of an age where he or she can raise an alarm. The onus also lies with the parents while schools' irresponsibility is unpardonable," she says.

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