The Ministry of Women and Child Development is being misled by a prejudiced report on child abuse in India, guided by UNICEF and Save the Children, an NGO. The report, which the ministry has accepted to serve as its statistical anchor, has given an exaggerated number of offenders within the family by clubbing neighbours and acquaintances as relatives. The report further floats a false notion that Indian parents indulge in a “conspiracy of silence” and are prone to cover up cases of child abuse. Suranya Aiyar exposes all this in “Save your child from UNICEF: A study of UNICEF’s biased and false claims about Indian parents”. Here is the fifth part of Aiyar’s report.
In this part, we scrutinise the Report’s (Study on Child Abuse: India 2007 http://wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf) claims about “emotional abuse” and “neglect” of female children.
WHAT IS “EMOTIONAL ABUSE”?
“Emotional abuse” is defined as “treating harshly, shouting, belittling, name calling and using abusive language while addressing children” and “comparison”, which is described as comparing siblings or other children with each other.
What is “girl child neglect”
Girl child neglect is defined by the following so-called “indicators”: “less attention, less appreciation, less food, fault finding, household work compared to other siblings and looking after siblings”.
Regarding this portion of the Report, we will not repeat the exercise of scrutinising the statistics as we have done on its claims about physical and sexual abuse. We believe that regardless of whether or not the stated statistics stand up to scrutiny, the matters discussed in this portion of the Report have no place in a study on abuse.
MISUSE OF CONCEPTS OF “CHILD ABUSE” AND “CHILD NEGLECT”
Shouting, comparing children and swearing are not “child abuse”; no matter what delicate sensibilities about children are offended by these things.
Telling your daughter to watch over her baby brother while he sleeps; an impoverished family making hard choices about the division of scarce food among siblings; and the manner in which a parent expresses herself to a daughter; no matter how much fault you may find in these things from the point of view of gender discrimination, these do not constitute “neglect” or “abuse”.
There is absolutely no justification for giving these things the label of “abuse”, a term that shouts out something sick and depraved; or “neglect”, a term that implies something utterly and deliberately callous on the part of Indian parents and other adult custodians towards their children.
Prejudiced questioning; blocking of contrary viewpoint and pre-conceived anti-family assumptions
In this portion of the Report, the authors do not even make a pretence at any kind of objectivity in eliciting responses from the respondents. Children are asked “have you ever been upset/angry” on being compared with other children “by your father or mother”; “in your family have you ever been treated harshly, in favour of other children”; “is it a matter of advantage or disadvantage to be a girl in the family setting”; “do you sometimes wish you were a boy”, “generally do you get the same amount of attention and love from your father and mother as your brother(s) do”; “do your brothers dominate over you in play activities”; “do your brothers physically tease/punish you in day-to-day activities”, “if yes, do your parents take your side to prevent teasing/punishment.”
According to the Report, girl “child neglect” is evidenced by so-called “indicators” such as “forced to leave tasty food for brothers” and “parents finding fault for no reason”.
In the questionnaire for young adults we get some further insight into the kind of non-serious encounters the Report labels as “abuse”: respondents are asked whether as a child anyone called them “budhu”, “idiot”, “ganwar”, “jalil” or “pagal”. These are expressions that are as often as not used affectionately or jokingly among Hindi-speaking Indians.
Adult respondents of 18 to 24 years of age are asked whether in their childhood their parents or relatives ever (we assume this would include even once) “asked you to leave tasty food items for your brother or sister”. Leading questions are asked such as: “In day-to day life did family members do fault finding more in your activities than that of your brother and sisters?”
ANTIPATHY TOWARDS YOUNG BOYS AND BROTHERS
The hostility of the authors of the Report to the family, and their especial antagonism against boy children, is evident in the questionnaire itself. There is no attempt to objectively assess family dynamics of the respondents surveyed. This is particularly evident in the leading questions about “brothers” and the fact that only girl children were asked these questions.
Fair research would have required that brothers and parents also be asked how they perceived reported instances of boy child preference.
PORTRAYING ORDINARY CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES AS “ABUSIVE”
Have we not all felt resentful at some point or the other about parents preferring one sibling over another, regardless of whether that sibling was a brother or sister? If a child gets into a fight with a sibling, does not each one emerge from being admonished by the parents feeling that the other one was favoured?
On the question asked of young adults about being told to leave tasty food items for a sibling, should there not have been a follow up question about why: for instance, was there a special occasion for the child for whom the treat was left, such as a birthday or a religious ceremony. In comparing how much food was given between siblings, would it not have been fair to ask whether the food was unequally divided because one child was ill, or medically advised not to take that food?
In the questions about “comparison”, was it not fair to ask why a parent was making a comparison? Whether, for instance, a parent was pointing out that one child lied, while the other did not; or that if one child worked hard like the other, then she would also do well in school; or that one child should learn to share his toys, like the other one?
We also recommend as an exercise to Hindi speaking readers, to translate the questions in the emotional abuse section into Hindi (recall that the Report says that nearly half the respondents surveyed were Hindi-speaking). Things that sound severe in the choice of English words in the questionnaire (eg. “have you ever been shouted at and humiliated [by your mother]?”) have a completely different ring to them in Hindi (eg: “kya aapki ma chillati hai? Aur phir aapko bura lagta hai?”).
Taking advantage of relatively backward social and economic status of child respondent’s families
The Report says that the child respondents questioned came from relatively humble backgrounds. Does not the design of the questionnaire smack of classism and a wilful blindness to the incidents of poverty? Would the authors of the Report have been able to get away with asking such intrusive and biased questions of children in a middle class family, with educated working mothers? Would they, for instance, have been able to get away with asking a child: Do you cry when your mother goes to work? Do you want your mother to stop working and stay at home with you? When you grow up, will you also leave your baby at home and go to work?
If it is unfair and prejudiced to ask a child such leading questions without considering the adult rationale for things children may not like, then the same applies to the kinds of questions that children were asked in the Report.
STIGMATISING HOUSEHOLD WORK AS “ABUSE”
The Report’s terming as “abuse” the reported phenomenon of girls being asked to do household work and help care for younger siblings is unacceptable. Why should children not assist their mothers in housework? Especially the kind of work the questionnaire speaks of: cleaning, dusting and drawing of water. Many children delight in helping around the house and kitchen; it makes them feel like they are grown-up. If some children consider this a chore, that is no different a situation than a Western child being told to clean up its messes.
While the Report takes the position that caring for baby brothers or sisters is “abuse”, most children are proud of their infant siblings: parading them around and dressing them up like dolls. If the point of the Report was to show that boys are not enlisted in household work, then calling household work abuse is not going to help the cause.
It may be that in impoverished families that cannot afford domestic help, mothers rely more heavily on their children to help with the housework. But that is poverty, and not abuse.
The Report had no business calling women needing help with household work as “abusers”. This is another example of unjustified mother-blaming in the Report, which we also noted in the chapters on physical abuse and sexual abuse where slapping by mothers has been termed “abuse” and mothers are blamed for sexual assaults on children by others.
Some NGOs argue that impoverished mothers relying on children for help in housework is responsible for low school attendance and poor results in children. If that is the case, then what we have here is a situation where a family-centric view has to be taken to promote schooling, and the focus has to widen from merely counting the number of girl children out of schools, to giving mothers the helping hand they need in the home if they are to lose the help of their children owing to the demands of school.
ARE WE HEADED TOWARDS A “CINDERELLA LAW”?
So far as the claims of “emotional abuse” are concerned, there is every reason to be concerned about the Government being convinced by UNICEF and Save the Children to treat this as a form of child abuse.
A few months ago in England, a law was proposed, popularly called the “Cinderella Law”, which will allow criminal prosecution of parents for things such as ignoring a child, making it feel unloved, and comparison with siblings. Laws like this will empower child protection officials (and not just the allegedly “abused” children) to prosecute parents for being “unloving”.
Apart from the possibility for misuse, these kinds of laws reflect a cultural attitude towards the family, towards adult issues with depression and loneliness (that are blamed on their childhood experiences), and towards the role of psychology in addressing these issues. These ideas are not uncontested, even in the West, where they currently hold sway. This is not the place to get into this complex debate, but what is clear is that the Government appears from this Report to be convinced of this point of view. A point of view of which no one in India, other than a few extremist child rights organisations, is even aware.
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.