For months, 14-year-old Sunny, would get thrashed by his teacher in a government school in Mumbai. Anything could trigger the violence — indiscipline, not running the teacher’s personal errands, not attending his private coaching classes. Fed up, Sunny sought the help of a volunteer at a children’s activity centre, who directed him to call the Childline 1098. Within an hour, a team member from a field partner of Childline India Foundation, which runs the helpline, reached the centre. After verifying the details of the abuse, she visited the school and, posing as a stranger, spoke to the principal about the erring teacher as well as the laws on corporal punishment and child abuse.

A few more visits and a threat of legal action later, the school finally issued a warning to him. These days, a much-relieved Sunny is only too eager to tell his friends, “If anyone abuses you, just call 10-9-8”.

Childline 1098 is India’s first, and the world’s largest, 24-hour tele-helpline for children in distress. In 2014-15, around four million called in for help. Of these, 42,111 were requests for protection from various kinds of abuse. Sadly, high as these numbers are, this is just the tip of the iceberg points out Tanvi Aher, Project Coordinator, Childline India Foundation. “Some people report abuse directly to the police, government bodies like Child Welfare Committee, or contact other NGOs for intervention; a lot of abuse remains unreported, though,” she says.

Vidya Reddy, Co-founder of the Chennai-based Tulir-Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, agrees. In its research report, Doesn’t Every Child Count? Research on Prevalence and Dynamics of Child Sexual Abuse Among School Going Children in Chennai, Tulir found that of the 2011 school children surveyed, 939 respondents said they had been sexually abused at some point; of these, only 360 ever sought help or disclosed the abuse. And of those who sought help, an astounding 60 per cent never received any. Instead, they were disbelieved, blamed or told to keep it a secret.

This culture of silence usually comes in the way and yet over the 12 years that she has been working in this field, Reddy has seen a definite uptick in the trend. “There has been a steady improvement in reporting statistics because of greater confidence in the system and increasing awareness of the need to make the perpetrator accountable,” she observes.

Reporting child sexual abuse is mandatory under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. Any case of abuse, sexual or otherwise, can be reported to the police, the CWC, or Childline 1098. Additionally, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has launched the e-box service on its website in August 2016, which facilitates easy and confidential online reporting of sexual abuse. A call on 9868235077 during its office hours is another option.

Of these avenues 1098 remains the preferred one, mainly because of the efficient structure it has in place. Childline, which intervenes on the entire gamut of child rights, currently operates in 366 cities in 24 states and union territories. It has a network of over 700 partner organisations across India and is supported and promoted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India.

Calls made to 1098 are answered by a trained Contact Officer in one of its six call centres. A case report is generated and forwarded to the field partner in the city from where the call came. A member of the field partner contacts the affected child within one hour. Post intervention, the partner reports back to Childline. While the Childline makes every effort to remain accessible 24×7, there can sometimes be glitches. For example, if staff of partner organisations is on leave, or if a call comes in very late at night, it may be impossible to send someone to the site; at peak times, some callers may be unable to connect. “To deal with this we are now using cloud technology to put calls on hold or call back later,” says Aher. To cover its costs, the Childline has CSR alliances with telecom operators and technology partner TCS (for the call centres) that provide them services on a non-profit basis. Space, technology and manpower expenses are financed by the WCD ministry or through self-generated funds.

However, even as agencies grapple with the challenges surrounding child protection, another potent avenue for abuse has emerged – Internet and social media, confronting which demands a different set of responses, infrastructure and manpower. Reddy reveals, “Every case of child sexual abuse we have handled in the last five years has had some technology input. Either pictures of the child are taken, or the child has been shown sexual content.”

Though actual numbers of children being abused online or via mobile have not been compiled so far, there are some indications of what the future portends. Unicef’s ‘Child Online Protection in India’ report states that there are about 400 million internet users in India, a majority of which are young. In 2016, as per the telecom regulator, countrywide mobile subscriptions crossed the one billion mark, and it is expected that a major chunk of these will soon shift to smart phones to access internet; many of them will be children. According to a survey commissioned by Intel Securities in India in 2015, 43 per cent of children active on social media said they had witnessed cruel behaviour, while 52 per cent admitted to having bullied people themselves.

“Despite our limited internet penetration and quality, Indians are among the top three consumers of porn in the world, and the most searched keyword term is teenagers. There is a predilection towards the younger age group,” says Siddarth Pillai, co-director and communications manager of Prerarna’s Aarambh initiative. It is easy to join the dots and gauge the potential for child abuse through technology.

Dr Debarati Halder, Managing Director of Center for Cyber Victim Counselling, says, “Adult abusers lure children with games, etc, and then slowly expose them to obscene activity. But sometimes, the perpetrators themselves may be children,” she says.

Reporting of cyber abuse, she says, is far from satisfactory. Whereas small kids may not be able to discern the abuse the older ones are usually ashamed to reveal it to anyone. Parents generally are either unaware of the dangers that lurk online, or have little time to supervise the child’s online activity. So, even when they discover the child’s distress, there is reluctance to approach the police or other organisations because of the feeling of guilt.

“There is law to prosecute cyber abuse, and child related victimisation laws are getting better, but the complainant must take care to preserve evidence of abuse. On the contrary, there is a tendency to delete the incriminating content,” says Dr Halder. She also observes that “we have few proactive mechanisms to trap offenders”.

The Aarambh India initiative, launched in September 2016, is one. The online hotline to monitor and remove online child sexual imagery, set up in collaboration with UK-based Internet Watch Foundation, has received 70 calls a month since its operation. Sites reported on the Aarambh hotline are sent to the IWF, where they are examined by trained analysts. If proven to have child sexual imagery, the site goes to a blocking list that is subscribed to by all major tech groups across the world. The site is blocked at URL level.

Naturally, setting up a vigilance center takes huge investment. “And this is currently not feasible in India, though we are in touch with various government bodies and cyber cells to convince them about the need. In the public sphere, we will launch awareness campaign about our hotline, so there is a momentum,” says Pillai.

Clearly, it is going to be a long, hard battle.


(women’s feature service)