‘Journalists must start respecting the laws around reporting on child rape’

Megha Bhatia is the founder of Our Voix, an organisation that runs workshops focused on the prevention of child sexual abuse

Our Voix founder Megha Bhatia believes journalists and students of journalism should be given training about laws. Photo credit: Saumya Agrawal

On 12 August 2018, the President of India gave his assent to a law that provides for the death penalty for the rape of girls under 12. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2018 is the latest in a series of steps taken by the government to counter sexual violence with harsher punishments. This approach has its merits but misses a crucial point, believes Megha Bhatia, the founder of Our Voix, a youth-led organisation that focuses on the prevention of child sexual abuse. “In our country, we are working on stringent punishments after abuse but no work is being done on primary prevention — intervening before the crime takes place,” says Bhatia, who started the organisation in January 2018.

Bhatia has conducted awareness workshops on child sexual abuse for more than 6000 children across Delhi, and has previously worked with organisations such as Save The Children and Amnesty International in London, where she also did her LLM (specialising in human rights) from University College.

NewsTracker met her at a cafe in Delhi for a conversation on the importance of giving children — girls as well as boys — the tools to deal with sexual abuse, the challenges of sensitising parents and teachers, the pros and cons of the death penalty for child rape, and how the media should deal with minor victims of sexual assault. Excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity.

How did Our Voix come into being?

While interning with the Sofia Education and Welfare Society, an NGO, I dealt with child abuse cases frequently. I’d take them to the police station and for medical examinations, and the experience made me realise the magnitude of the problem. I also familiarised myself with the child abuse laws of India — in particular the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, 2012 — and understood that violations extend beyond touch to include behaviours such as making children watch pornography, and other forms of harassment and exploitation.

When I went to London and saw the kind of work that was being done in this field, I realised that I need to start my own organisation that works on the primary prevention of child sexual abuse in India.

IN OUR COUNTRY, WE ARE WORKING ON STRINGENT PUNISHMENTS AFTER ABUSE BUT NO WORK IS BEING DONE ON PRIMARY PREVENTION — INTERVENING BEFORE THE CRIME TAKES PLACE.

When children are abused, they cannot raise their voice (“voix” is French for “voice). They don’t even know what is happening. The harm is so deep that its impact never dulls. Adults understand what has happened to them and that they need to report it. It’s our responsibility to provide protection to children.

Can you tell us more about your organisation and what it does?

There are people from different backgrounds at Our Voix: psychologists, professors, a law consultant and creative consultant.

We do workshops for children — primarily in the 6–12 age group — as well as for teachers and parents. We are also training youth to conduct workshops for children, teachers and parents.

Children are taught through images and stories in Our Voix workshops. Photo courtesy: Megha Bhatia

We devised the structure of the workshops after doing a lot of academic research as well as talking to parents, professors and teachers to understand their needs. Our workshops are being evaluated and updated regularly.

Children are taught through games and cartoons in our workshops. We don’t do danger talks because we don’t want to create fearful children. We have to create fearless children. Our workshops are child-friendly: we use a lot of pictures and conduct activities like nukkad nataks (street plays), flash mobs and discussions.

These are one-time workshops but we do go for a follow up a month later. At first, children are often hesitant to talk about the issue, but after an hour of the workshop you can see a change in them — even those who didn’t know the names of private parts at first come forward to answer questions.

Sexual abuse is difficult to discuss with kids. How do you get the message across to them?

Some parents don’t even know the correct names for private parts and are hesitant to discuss sexual abuse… they find it difficult to communicate with children. We at Our Voix are not hesitant and it works. We tell them that it’s a body part, hasne ki kya baat hai (what’s there to laugh about)? Tell them the purpose of private parts. This makes it normal for them.

Also, it is important to be a child with them. Be their didi, bhaiya. They will love you and listen to you. Become friends with them. Be a part of their family. Share a part of your life with them. They will do the same. Understand the language of children. Make pinky promises.

It’s important to teach about good and bad touch but we have to be careful about the language and the technique we use. We heard about a child who stopped hugging his father because he believed it to be a bad touch.

THE MEDIA NEEDS TO BE EXTRA-SENSITIVE WHEN REPORTING ON CHILD RAPE… A CHILD COULD BE TEASED ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO HER. HER SCHOOLMATES MAY NOT EVEN KNOW THAT RAPE IS A BAD THING — THEY WILL MERELY PICK UP CUES FROM THE MEDIA.

Stories are also an effective way to teach children about the process of sexual abuse, of grooming: the abuser gains the trust of the child, asks them not to tell anyone what happened as it’s their ‘secret’. Everyone knows they lure kids by offering toffees. But they also say things like, “If you tell your mother, I’ll beat her” or “Your mother isn’t going to trust you”. They even make the child believe that they enjoyed the abuse. We inform kids that they should break the pinky promise and share it with an adult.

What kind of awareness do children already have?

Once when we asked children to give examples of bad touch, they replied, “When someone beats us with a chappal (slippers) or a jhaadu (broom).” Parents abuse their children by beating them. So when children face sexual abuse, they think it is normal. If a classmate is physically abusing them, they find it normal because it happens at home too.

Once when we were teaching them about ‘chest’, a child called it ‘chips’. When we said chhati (chest), another child replied chhata (an umbrella). In an MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) school where we gave the workshop, there was a chart of body parts, but private parts were missing in it. During my internship, when we used to take the statements of children, they used to say things like, “He touched me from where I urinate.” They didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what happened to them.

How do you sensitise children about whom to trust and whom not to trust? Most abusers are known to the children, could even be a parent.

We can’t tell them not to trust their father or mother. We don’t ask them to trust one person. We ask them to trust everyone. If something happens, share it with everyone — parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents. So if the parents are involved, the child can trust other people and share it with them. Their trust in the abuser will be broken but at least this way they will have someone else they can go to for help.

How do you sensitise parents and teachers?

Sensitising parents is the toughest because they believe that they know everything, and are resistant. They think, “What will this girl teach us?” Some parents are very rigid. What works is if you acknowledge their point of view first and then tell them that what you have to say is very important for children.

Megha Bhatia believes children should be taught to be fearless rather than fearful. Photo courtesy: Megha Bhatia

We educate them about the legal procedure. In the majority of cases, family members, relatives or known people are involved, so people refrain from reporting. We tell them that according to the law, if they don’t report, they can also be sent to jail. We inform them that the provisions are child friendly and that it’s not difficult to report. It’s not necessary for the child to visit the police station. They fear being shamed for having the police visiting their house. We educate them that the police will visit in civil clothes. We make them understand that it’s important for them to listen to their children and stand up for them. Because if parents don’t take a stand, people will think that it is easy to abuse the child.

PEOPLE ONLY REMEMBER THE NAME NIRBHAYA. HAD THE MEDIA REPEATEDLY TAKEN THE NAMES OF THE RAPISTS, WE WOULDN’T HAVE FORGOTTEN THEM.

Parents’ awareness is lacking too. During a workshop, the parents told us what they understood by the term baal yaun shoshan (child sexual abuse) — they thought it was an education campaign run by the government.

In another workshop, I asked parents, “If your child is abused sexually, who do you think your child will share it with?” They very confidently said that their children would come to them. However, when we spoke to the children earlier, most said they would tell their friends and not their mother — because “if I tell my mother, she will beat me. She will not allow me to go outside the house.” And this was not a workshop in an underprivileged society. We teach parents not to have a victim-blaming attitude towards their children.

Similar workshops are conducted for teachers too. They have surprisingly given us a good response. Recently we went to an MCD school where the teachers were really happy that we were telling children about sexual abuse in a friendly manner, and wanted materials from us. Once we covered all sections of a class except one. The teacher of that class asked us to address her students the next day. Teachers want guidance on how to teach these things to children.

When we go to government schools, we are asked if boys are also to be given the workshop. We tell them it is happening with boys too, they also need to be educated.

What do you think about the media’s coverage of child sexual abuse?

I think the media can play a very important role and can give a voice to people. It can share stories that need to reach many people. Unfortunately, the media isn’t doing its job properly. For example, Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code prohibits disclosing the name of the victim or giving any information that could make them identifiable, and even the POCSO Act doesn’t allow the identity of the child to be revealed. But it happened in the Kathua case. The media’s justification was that the victim had died. In another case, the media disclosed the neighbourhood and workplace of the victim — this would have made it easy for friends and neighbours to identify her. The media should be sensitive to these issues. Instead of sensationalising the news for TRPs, it should report facts.

Journalists and students of journalism should be given training about laws. It is important for media to understand and respect what the law says.

What do you have to say about the portrayal of the victims and accused in crimes against children?

I have an issue with statements such as “A 9-year old raped”. This kind of language can make the victim’s family feel that it was their daughter’s fault that it happened to her. Why only say that a 9-year-old was raped? Why not say that this criminal raped her? Don’t focus on the victim. She has been raped, spare her for some time and focus on the accused.

THE CURRENT FORMULATION — DEATH PENALTY FOR RAPE OF GIRLS UNDER 12 — IS PROBLEMATIC IN SOME WAYS. WHAT IF THE VICTIM IS 13 YEARS OLD? WILL THE RAPIST ESCAPE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT THEN?

Do you know the names of all the rapists of the Nirbhaya case? People only remember the name Nirbhaya. Had the media repeatedly taken the names of the rapists, we wouldn’t have forgotten them.

The media needs to be extra-sensitive when reporting on child rape. If she returns to school, a child could be teased about what happened to her. Her schoolmates may not even know that rape is a bad thing — they will merely pick up cues from the media.

How can the media improve its reportage of rape?

Victim-blaming creeps into the information shared by the media, indirectly if not directly. It should not matter that the victim was wearing a short skirt or club-hopping — that has nothing to do with rape. But people see what the media shows, so there needs to be more sensitivity in reporting.

Journalists should know their aim — whether they want to sensationalise the news or educate the public. It would probably help if journalists were given training on laws and ethics at regular intervals.

Media trials shouldn’t happen either. The media should relay the facts and let the judiciary do their work.

Do you think reporting on convictions for sexual crimes would have a positive effect?

An abuser will be able to see the consequences of the crime. If we start reporting more about the judgements then the culprit will fear the punishment and the reader will be satisfied that justice is being done. Of course, the mindset of people can’t be changed quickly, it will take time.

Do you think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for child rape?

In my opinion, yes, but it is not a long-term solution to the ongoing problem. The death penalty is a deterrent punishment, meant to create fear in the minds of the culprits and society. India is at a stage where if you don’t create fear, people won’t stop themselves from committing the crime.

But the current formulation — death penalty for rape of girls under 12 — is problematic in some ways. What if the victim is 13 years old? Will the rapist escape capital punishment then? According to the POCSO Act, a child is defined as anyone under 18 years of age.

Some people are saying that the rapist might murder the child after rape (so he or she can’t report them) if the death penalty is allowed but think like this — maybe the abuser will not commit the crime of rape out of fear of capital punishment. People fear death.

In the long run, reformation is a better solution. When the statistics improve, we can go for life imprisonment. Work on improving the mindset of convicts. Make them good humans so that they can help society.