Children at increased risk of sexual abuse and exploitation during COVID-19 lockdown

There has to be enough focus on the protection of children from sexual abuse and parents, guardians, teachers and all those who are stakeholders in children’s welfare should be really aware of this aspect to ensure a safe and healthy childhood for our children during this time of coronavirus pandemic, writes Sonal Kellogg for South Asia Monitor

Sonal Kellogg Jun 30, 2020
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The world is focused on combating the COVID-19 virus and each country is devising its own strategies to reduce the spread of this virus and also to reduce fatalities. Since this is the first time people are facing this pandemic, everyone is on a learning curve and almost all countries imposed a lockdown to stop the spread of this disease. 

India imposed one of the longest and most strict lockdowns in the world with four lockdowns announced by the government back-to-back, beginning from lockdown 1.0 which began on March 25 and ended on April 14, followed by lockdown 2.0 for 19 days which ended on May 3, lockdown 3.0 ended on May 17, and lockdown 4.0 ended on May 31, and currently, we are in phase five of the lockdown, which will end on June 30, 2020.

The focus in all this time since the pandemic began, has been on reducing the spread of the disease and also on reducing the fatalities due to this. The lockdown imposed by most countries actually resulted in some good things like lower pollution levels, flora and fauna rejuvenating, cleaner cities, cleaner rivers, etc. However, there have been many fallouts of this lockdown, including loss of jobs, severe distress among migrant workers, who were forced to walk back to their homes hundreds of kilometres away, hunger, deaths due to starvation, road accidents, and economic slowdown, etc. 

But in all this fear of coronavirus pandemic, especially since it is so contagious, we have not been able to focus on the protection of children from sexual abuse. Granted that people are worried about the lack of access to education due to closure of schools, which means no classes and no examinations, and also concern over children being cooped up in their homes, but there is hardly any focus or even discussion on the protection of children from sexual abuse, much of which happens in children’s own homes. 

Abuse by known people 

Studies have shown that 95 percent children are abused sexually by people know to them, many of them having authority over them. As much as half or more of sexual abuse of children happens in their own homes so though children might be safe from outside attacks, they are not safe from sexual abuse in their own homes. It can’t be stressed enough that boys, as well as girls, are vulnerable to sexual abuse and all children are vulnerable to sexual abuse, and no particular group of children are safe from it.

Parents who live in denial that sexual abuse doesn’t happen in their homes need to know that as many as 70 percent of children who are sexually abused never report the matter to anyone and often that is the reason that their abuse goes on for a long time undetected by parents. A very high percent of sexual predators are in children’s homes, as often uncles and older cousins sexually abuse younger children, a fact which many studies have revealed in India as well as in studies abroad. 

The most widely quoted study in India done in 2007 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development about child abuse was conducted in 13 states with over 17,000 respondents. This study revealed that over 70 percent of survivors who have faced sexual abuse never reports it to anyone. This is the reason why children who are facing abuse in their homes will continue to face it because they don’t report the matter and there’s no escape from it if the perpetrator is a family member or a close family friend. 

Though lockdown has ended in many cities and areas in the country, but schools and colleges are still closed and children are staying indoors, locked up inside homes to save them from COVID-19. Also, as many people are working from their homes, children, who are facing abuse from their family members, there’s no escape for them.

Tips for parents

One important thing parents can do during this time is: be vigilant and really observant to see if anything is amiss with their children or if any person is showing way too much interest in their son or daughter. 

Creating awareness about child sexual abuse becomes paramount and children need to be taught to report any untoward behavior by an adult immediately to their parents or teachers. The reason a child keeps quiet is shame, guilt, fear, and a whole lot of other emotions. Parents, grandparents, and guardians need to be careful to be open to any comment a child makes of unusual behavior by any adult. If one dismisses a child’s attempt to report the matter even if it is in an awkward or coarse manner then the child will clamp down and might never report the matter again. So a child’s hesitant manner to report some horrible behavior of an adult should be met with an open mind.

It’s extremely important to remember to never ever blame the child, even if the child is in his or her teenage years, because the thumb rule here is that it’s never the fault of a child when it comes to sexual abuse. This point can’t be stressed enough, especially in India and South Asia where 50 percent of girls are married before they reach the age of 18 years so the perception is a girl in her later teenage years is old enough to stop the abuse. 

Boys on the other hand find it very difficult to report the matter because it means showing a vulnerable side which our society looks down upon. But it’s crucial to remember that more boys get sexually abused than girls according to ‘The Study on Child Abuse: India 2007’ and parents, guardians and even teachers need to know this fact.

There has to be enough focus on the protection of children from sexual abuse and parents, guardian, teachers and all those who are stakeholders in children’s welfare should be really aware of this aspect to ensure a safe and healthy childhood for our children during this time of coronavirus pandemic.  

(The writer,  an independent journalist and social activist,  is the founder of Sabfree Foundation that provides an eco-system for survivors of child sexual abuse.  She can be contacted at sonalkellogg@gmail.com)

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