India to launch online system for children to report sexual abuse

Students of the Barbhitha Anchalik School in Merganda, Gumi, Guwahati, Assam. (Credit: Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

A simple classroom comment box has finally begun to chip away at the silence that has shrouded pervasive child sexual abuse in India for generations.

India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, in a 2007 study, found that more than half of all children surveyed had suffered some form of sexual abuse but had not told anyone about it. Later this week, the government agency plans to roll out an online reporting system children can access on their own called the ‘e-box.’

“A child who may be touched inappropriately or molested by others can put forth a complaint into the e-box, and it will be addressed,” Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi announced last Tuesday, reports the Times of India.

The e-box will be hosted on the ministry’s website, and victims will have the option whether to remain anonymous or not. Each case will be forwarded to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and from there, a ministry official says the process will be similar to that of the existing helpline for children in distress, Childline.

“Earlier, we thought of physical boxes in schools, etc., but then it becomes a complaint for police where the complainant has to come out in the open. Hence, we decided to start an e-box facility on August 26,” Gandhi said.

These physical boxes Gandhi refers to are part of Project Nirbheek (“fearless” in Hindi), launched by police in August last year in classrooms across Delhi. In a country where sex ed is “banned in 13 states and non-existent in the remaining 16,” according to the Guardian, police took it upon themselves to teach students about sex and sexual abuse. And because abusers are often close to the children, even family, police installed these boxes as a safe avenue for children to speak out and took their message directly to the schools.

It’s a message children in India desperately need to hear.

The 2007 survey by the Ministry of Women and Child Development found that over 53 precent of children under 18 in India have suffered one or more forms of sexual abuse. Half of the abuses were carried out by someone “known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility,” and most children never reported the abuse to anyone. Human Rights Watch has also reported on the problem in India.

Apparently, this pattern of abuse and silence has been perpetuated for generations. A Project Nirbheek police officer told the Guardian about one story of abuse by a girl’s father, in which the mother told her daughter, “Just the way I’ve tolerated these things, you will have to tolerate it, too.”

In many ways, Nirbheek has been a huge success – police received over 5,000 written and verbal complaints in the first six months, reports the Guardian, and several convictions have been made as well, says DNA India.

But Gandhi’s evaluation of Nirbheek is not as positive. “In many cases, the child was abused by someone who was close to him or her – father, brother, neighbor, and in some cases, the same teacher who was responsible for dealing with complaints in the box,” she told state officials at a meeting recently, reports DNA. In addition, she alleges that some people were opening the box to read or even manipulate the letters.

Gandhi says the online e-box would eliminate that conflict of confidentiality.

Of course, the success of the e-box would completely bank on students’ access to computers, but Gandhi doesn’t see it as a major obstacle. According to the Times of India, she’s trusting principals to guide their students through use of the e-box.

Whether the e-box will be as effective as Gandhi hopes remains to be seen, but at least critics, experts and Gandhi all seem to agree that an initiative like this is only one part of the solution. The ministry is also working on compiling a national sex offender list, as well as collaborating with NGOs on India’s first anti-trafficking bill, which Gandhi says will be passed by December.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.