CHILDREN ARE NOT ‘STAKEHOLDERS’ ACCORDING TO THE REPORT
The Report “Study on Child Abuse: India 2007” (http://wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf) surveys a group of so-called “stakeholders” to elicit their views on physical abuse of children and measures to be taken in this regard. The Report states that the “stakeholders” sought out were “persons holding positions in government departments, private service, urban and rural local bodies and individuals from the community. Majority of respondents in this category (42.38%) were in government service, whereas 27.97% were from the private sector. Remaining 29.65% of the respondent stakeholders were from the other categories which included parents, NGOs, community leaders, elected representatives of urban and local bodies.”
Though the Report blames Indian parents for not treating children as individuals in their own right and for failing to give children a “voice”, the Report itself seems to fail in this regard by, very patronizingly, not considering children as “stakeholders” in the survey.
It is ironic that the Report does not even count children as stakeholders, while its bemoans the state of Indian children with statements about a lack of realisation on the part of parents that “children are individuals with their own rights”; that children are “traditionally and conventionally not consulted about matters and decisions affecting their lives”; and that “children’s views are mostly not given much importance”.
HOW CHILD RIGHTS IDEOLOGY ACTUALLY FAILS TO GIVE A VOICE TO CHILDREN
This is not just a case of the authors of the Report failing to apply their own stated principles. The apparent inconsistency is actually revealing of a deeper fallacy in the approach of the Report to child welfare.
Since the voice of the child has to be articulated by an adult, all you are achieving by silencing parents and other natural guardians in the name of being child centric, is that you are replacing their voice with your own, along with your biases, ideological beliefs and other subjective factors.
Even if you assume that all parents are biased by their patriarchy and authoritarianism, you are not solving the issue by replacing your voice for theirs; and you are wilfully ignoring an important factor that tempers this apparently unjust hierarchy between parents and children - love.
Going by how the Report responds when it disagrees with what stakeholders and young adults have to say about disciplining children, it would appear that the substitution of the voice of the child rights ideologue for that of the child’s parents, does not do anything to reverse the adult-child hierarchy that the Report seeks to criticise.
For instance, the Report says that both young adults and stakeholders agreed with some form of physical disciplining of children, and also that cases of physical abuse should be dealt with by family in preference to other options, such as bringing in the police. The responses of young adults and stakeholders on these issues, as stated in the Report, also show that none of them advocated severe physical punishment, and that of the forms of physical punishment suggested, the overwhelming majority were in favour of slapping or caning, both of which followed behind shouting or scolding as the most favoured method of discipline. But despite this rather moderate response of young adults and stakeholders, the Report makes alarming pronouncements to the effect that this indicates a “cycle of abuse” whereby victims of abuse themselves becomes abusers.
This is not only a gross exaggeration of what the respondents actually said, but it also reveals that the authors of the Report are not really willing to recognise the child as an individual in his own right, capable to forming opinions for himself. The authors singularly fail to concede any agency on the part of the child by claiming that children who are slapped are potential “abusers”. Where is the recognition of the child as an “individual” in her own right, in such a dismissive and judgemental view of children?
Children do not blindly copy their parents’ patterns of behaviour. Plenty of people who were physically disciplined in their youth choose not to do so with their own children. In fact, if at all there is a new trend emerging in India, there is a trend away from physical to non-physical forms of moderating children’s behaviour.
We are aware of some theories in the field of psychology that children who come from violent homes repeat this pattern in their own adulthood. But that is not a theory that applies to homes where mere slapping is used as a form of discipline.
REPORT FAILS TO REASSESS ITS ASSUMPTIONS EVEN WHEN THE DATA DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS THEM
Mother-blaming: So biased is the Report, that it holds on to its assumptions about Indian families, even when they are directly contradicted by its own findings. For instance, throughout the Report the cause for the so-called physical abuse in the family is said to be “patriarchy” and discrimination against female children. The Report says that “Although the study had not gathered any empirical data which would indicate the possible reasons for such a high percentage of physical abuse against children, it can possibly be attributed to the following reasons: a patriarchal society that looks upon the children as the property of the father” and “Indian society... is patriarchal in structure where the chain of command is definite and inviolable”.
But the data on children reported to have been physically abused by family members shows two things that squarely contradict this rationale: first, 50.9% are said to have been abused by their mothers. Second, more boys than girls report physical abuse, both overall, and in each but two of the states represented in the sample of child respondents surveyed.
Not only are mothers by far the majority among the alleged family perpetrators, fathers come a distant second at 37.6%.
When we recall that the overwhelming majority of cases labelled as “physical abuse” in the Report are cases of non-severe slapping, the picture that emerges is of some (not all or most) mothers slapping their sons to discipline them. This simply does not fit the Report’s claims of “high abuse” fuelled by “patriarchy”.
If anything, this kind of mother-blaming based on utterly lax research, and dressing up of mild everyday encounters between mother and child as “abuse”, smacks of witch-hunting and misogyny.
UGLY BIAS AGAINST SMALL BOYS
The Report dismisses the difference in the rate of boys and girls reporting physical abuse as irrelevant. It finds that: “In the overall percentage there seems to be not much difference in physical abuse being faced by girls and boys.”
But if you compare, state-wise, the proportion of boys to girls reported as physically abused, the variation in nearly all cases is over 10%. In many cases over 20% more boys than girls reported as physically abused.
This is not a statistically insignificant difference. If the Report were not completely blinded by its prejudice that the only explanation for anything involving children and the family in India is “patriarchy”, then this difference should have prompted some reassessment of its understanding of the nature of childhood and family dynamics in India.
We will see later that a similar pattern emerges in the portion of the Report on sexual abuse of children, where more boys than girls are reporting sexual abuse. But again, the Report persists in its assertion that all abuse of children in Indian society is guided by discrimination against women and girls. The Report goes on to devote an entire section to gender discrimination against girls as a category of “child abuse”, while ignoring the special case of abuse of boys which appears to emerge from its own data.
WE ARE NOT HERE MAKING THE CASE THAT THERE IS, IN FACT, A SPECIAL CASE OF ABUSE OF BOYS IN INDIA. AS WE HAVE STATED REPEATEDLY, THE QUALITY OF THE DATA AND THE DESIGN OF THE RESEARCH IN THE REPORT IS SO POOR THAT IT DOES NOT WARRANT ANY CONCLUSION EITHER WAY.
But it is alarming that powerful international NGOs such as UNICEF and Save the Children, and the Government, acting heavily under their influence, should turn a blind eye to their own data just because it showed something about boys and not girls. This bias is particularly ugly and distasteful considering that the boys in question were very little, primarily in the tender age group of 5 to 12, and from humble backgrounds.
LAWS REGARDING PHYSICAL ABUSE BY PARENTS
We do not criticise the Report’s findings on physical abuse to make the claim that there is no physical abuse by parents of children in India. Every now and again there are reports in the papers of children being severely injured, even to death, by a parent. Even assuming that parental abuse (real abuse, not the slapping and pushing that the Report is focussed upon) is marginal or rare, there is good reason for society to take measures against such occurrences.
If existing laws are inadequate to prosecute severe abuse of children, then a case may be made for new laws, always keeping in mind that the law should punish genuine cases of cruelty, and not accidents, and unintended injury. The latter is no idle concern, in the USA and UK, parents taking their children to hospital for head injuries and fractures are routinely charged with child abuse allegations, and have their terrified children whisked away from the hospital to foster care under emergency protection orders, based on nothing else but the fact of injury.
If there are going to be special laws for parental physical abuse, there should also be consideration of whether provision needs to be made for giving second chances to genuinely repentant parents.
These are all issues that we can have a debate about. But there was no warrant for this pointless and judgmental Report, which apparently took over one and a half years to complete.
The cost of the Report is not stated, but going by the numerous NGOs engaged, the exercise being led by international NGOs, the number of people brought in to gather data and the time spent in preparing the Report, we are most likely looking at a hugely costly, and wasteful, exercise.
SLAPPING OF CHILDREN BY PARENTS
So far as slapping of children by parents is concerned, again, there was no need to have an expensive internationally sponsored study on this. We can say, without having gone through any surveys, that in India, as in many parts of the world, including in parts of the West, slapping or spanking your child by a parent, especially a mother, is culturally acceptable. Undeniably, some people want this to change. But that is a point for such people to convince others of in the community. There is no warrant for bringing slapping into the domain of public policy. Slapping is not abuse.
There is plenty of scientific research, from the West, no less, that says that children who are slapped or spanked in an otherwise loving environment, come to no harm. Plenty of parents, mothers especially, will testify that sometimes you have to become a child to get through to a child, and that can include a well-timed slap. Slapping is not even always a “traumatic” or “negative” experience for a child. Plenty of mothers will testify to their kids bursting into giggles as soon as they start doling out the slaps.
Some young children can be quite obstinate, working themselves into hysterics when refusing to do things that they need to do for their own or another’s sake, like getting out of the bath so they don’t catch cold, or not jumping up and down on rickety furniture, or not pulling their smaller sibling’s hair. A slap can snap them out of their hysterics and tantrums.
There is a tendency these days to diagnose boisterous children as having “attention disorder” or being “hyperactive”, or both. “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder”, or “ADHD”, is a familiar term to educated parents. There are reports of intolerant schools in the West, forcing parents to consider childish high spirits as a “disorder”. The short step from there to medicating children unnecessarily is often being taken.
One way or the other, children require some control. It is, at least arguably, better and safer to handle difficult and over-excitable children with the occasional slap, than by doping them into submission.
Before taking an extreme position against slapping, people should take an honest look at the kinds of non-physical practices that are recommended to extract “good behaviour”, which is just a polite term for “obedience”, from a child. The passive-aggressive behaviour required of the parent, the regimental insistence on being “consistent” (as though this were a military drill, rather than a relationship) and the extensive overall control over the general behaviour of the child (rules for eating, rules for sleeping, rules for playing, rules for asking for things, rules for expressing anger or hurt) is much greater in some of these non-physical disciplining practices, than the open, honest and momentary assertion of a parent’s will over a child by a slap.
WHY THIS ISSUE IS RELEVANT FOR PARENTS EVERYWHERE
What is telling about the UNICEF-Save the Children approach to child raising is not just what it chooses to focus upon — slapping — but also what it misses. If there has to be a discussion about parental behaviour, why should slapping and caning be the only kinds of parenting practices that are subjected to scrutiny?
What about harsh practices that are common and accepted among modern, western and (in India) westernised parents such as sleep training, where infants as young as a couple of weeks old are forced to learn to sleep “independently” by being left in their cots to “cry it out”, sometimes for hours together, to the point of them vomiting and choking with agitation. Or the practice of deliberately depriving infants of milk when they cry for it, so that they “learn” to feed according to a fixed schedule suitable for adult routines?
Let working mothers, who may have to schedule their babies in order to meet the demands of work, consider whether having the Government lay down the law on child raising practices, say by criminalising sleep training, would help or hinder them and their children. Let parents with high-strung children consider how they would have managed if they had had to tip toe around them; or what the cost to the child would have been if the only permitted intervention was in the form of prescription drugs. Let parents whose personalities do not lend themselves to passive-aggressive parenting techniques, or whose children’s personalities would revolt against such measures, consider how they would feel if they were straight-jacketed into using only those techniques in handling their children.
Suranya Aiyar was a practising lawyer before opting to become a stay at home mother in 2010. Since 2012, she has been writing and critiquing Western-style child protection laws as advocated in India by UNICEF and Save the Children. On a pro bono basis she has given support and advice to Indian families facing confiscation of their children abroad by child protection authorities. She also writes and illustrates children’s books.
To be continued