India does not have a national registry of sexual offenders. In an era where most millenials live through their phones and children born after the turn of the century do not know a life without screens, the implications of this run deeper than what meets the eye. In the three years leading up to 2017, it was reported that 99% of the cases that came to a Chennai-based NGO fighting child sexual abuse had an online context1. And yet, it remains the elephant in the room of crimes against children.
At first glance, the laws protecting children against online sexual abuse seem robust in India. Section 11(iv) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012) decrees that enticing a child for pornography and/or sexual gratification amounts to harassment, clarifying that this could be either directly or through electronic or digital means. Further, Section 67B(c) of the Information Technology Act (2008) penalises any relationship established for the sole purpose of publishing and/or transmitting material depicting children in sexually explicit forms.
However, a 2016 UNICEF report is quick to point out the pitfalls in this legislation. As reported by First Post 2, “The report notes that limitations in the law include lack of clear-cut and uniform terminology in legislations, risk of subjective interpretation of legal provisions and absence of any legal duty on intermediaries (such as internet service providers) to protect children from online threats.”
Added to the inherent stigma with regard to sexual abuse is the desire to “hush it up” and not air “dirty laundry in public,” and, together with the generalised mistrust in legal systems, these ensure that reportage of online sexual abuse of children is severely underreported.
The need of the hour is multifold. While existing legislation must be bolstered and better implemented, it is also worth acknowledging that legal measures are only effective in hindsight. To help prevent the problem and reduce incidence, the government needs to engage with children on online platforms and in the language they understand best, improving cyber literacy and making channels of complaint accessible and judgement-free. With social media platforms being accessible to children much before they are legally adults and the current generation prone to over-sharing on cyber space, the government needs to work with private actors, international players, and other stakeholders to build robust public-private partnerships that address the issue of cyber sexual abuse through effective, efficient, and relevant means.
There are numerous state measures that exist on paper with regard to protecting children. Apart from the legislative allowances already discussed, India has 23 cybercrime cells as of 20163. The CBI plays a key role in tracking websites that promote child pornography. Once again, according to UNICEF, there have been 605 special courts set up as of 2016 under the POSCO Act and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology has launched a five-year project to promote awareness on information security among children and families 4. However, the implementation of and faith in these structures is poor. The movement against online child sexual abuse will definitely benefit if the state is invested in keeping both the systems as well as the personnel involved up-to-date with the ever-evolving context of cyberspace, as well as working to increase conviction rates so complainants have greater faith in the legal system.
However, the responsibility of engagement does not lie solely with state actors. For the problem of online sexual abuse of children to be holistically addressed, it requires the attention and commitment of, amongst others, civil society groups and faith-based organizations as well. Key to addressing the problem is engagement. Civil society must actively engage with online sexual abuse, particularly of children, report incidence and equip themselves with the knowledge of cyber laws, reporting mechanisms, counselling services and other support measures. In the era where everything from information to funding needs are “crowdsourced,” we need to create culture where the safety of and justice for our children are taken into our hands as well. The very tools that pose danger to children online – social media networks, online chat rooms and fan groups – can be used to counteract these dangers; making them more robust, creating (anonymous) spaces of support and counselling, and becoming resource centres specifically focused on online abuse. It is in this regard that the role of faith-based organizations becomes particularly relevant.
Faith-based organizations (FBOs) hold a special place in society, one that is at the intersection of moral, ethical as well as social influence5. Given that sexual abuse, whether online or otherwise, remains a deeply stigmatised problem in society, FBOs are ideally positioned to play a key role in facilitating acceptance and destigmatisation, particularly of the children affected. These organizations as well as other congregations of religious faiths can provide support systems and counselling, reassuring children that there are safe spaces available to rebuild trust in the world around them. For children who have been victims of online abuse, this process of rebuilding trust becomes indescribably important, and having a supportive faith-based community can go a long way in ensuring a smoother process of acceptance and recovery and sense of belonging. Further, acknowledgement of the problem and condemning it publicly will actively deter other possible offenders who may not want to risk the sense of community and belonging offered by FBOs6. In an increasingly interconnected world, the fight for children’s rights should not be restricted by community or geography. FBOs have the potential to play as large a role as rights activists and other communities in this movement to ensure the safety of our children.
India has over 470 million children, the largest population under 18 in the world 7. These children are living in a world where issues of safety and security go far beyond the brick and mortar of their houses and schools. The pride with which India boasts of our IT revolution and internet penetration must also reflect in the responsibility towards these children. The results will be multifold – healthier, happier children are not only an asset to the community and a reflection of a society, but grow up into healthier, happier adults, more aware and engaged with the world around them. Socially, politically or economically, the happiness and security of our children is a national concern. When risk knows no physical boundaries, safety measures must transform into invisible shields as well.