Last week, social media exploded with the story of Assamese singing star Papon planting a kiss on an 11-year-old girl after rubbing her face with gulal during a live-streamed Holi celebration event. Within hours Bright Young Things from the world of child rights were on television telling us how the highest rate of child abuse is in the family. The child-rights brigade never loses an opportunity to run down the family, even when the case does not involve a family member and the incident took place, not in the home, but in that Holiest of the Holy places (or so they tell women like me who choose to give up work to take care of our children) the Workplace!
The claim about families being the biggest abuser of children is downright phony. The fact is that crimes are more likely to be committed by a person who has access to the victim. The highest rates of homicide are also said to be within the family.The highest rates of rape are said to be by a person known to the victim. It does not follow that families or known persons are more dangerous to you than strangers. That is like saying that Icelanders are safer company than Indians based on the fact that if you live in India then you are more likely to get killed by an Indian than an Icelander. You are more likely to be killed by an Indian because you live among them, that is all.
For decades the claim about the highest rates of child abuse being in the family has been the rallying call of international children’s NGOs. They have used it to whip up public hysteria about an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in the family about which they claim there is a “conspiracy of silence”. They have used it to ask for harsh laws allowing the state to confiscate children from parents. And they are using it for perverse social campaigns like the one to stop telling your child to hug visiting relatives!
The child protection lobbies rig statistics for child abuse in a number of ways. A particularly egregious example is the UNICEF-Save the Children Study on Child Abuse India, 2007. In 2015 I wrote a detailed paper, which was serialised in the Sunday Guardian, on its rigged statistics on child abuse in India. Among other tricks, high rates of physical abuse by parents were obtained by expanding the definition of abuse to include pushing and light slaps. You had to dig very deep into the data to discover that most of the “abuse” was light slapping by mothers of their boys!
On sexual abuse the study made the horrifying claim that every second child in India is subjected to some form of sexual abuse and every fifth child faces severe sexual abuse. As in the physical abuse section, the numbers were jacked-up by expanding the definition of sexual abuse to include viewing of pornography between “classmates” and “friends”. Viewing of pornography came in as the highest proportion of abuse in the overall sexual abuse figures. The second highest form of sexual abuse was strangers rubbing their “private parts” during public travel. Clearly this gives us a very different picture to what is conveyed in the scandalising statement that one in every second child in India is subjected to a form of sexual abuse.
The study also didn’t tell you that once you looked into the perpetrator-wise breakdown of types of sexual abuse, the data showed “friends” and “classmates” as the largest group of perpetrators in each category of sexual abuse, save on penetrative and oral sex, where they were the second largest group, being 0.11% behind “uncle/neighbour”. The study stated in its conclusion on sexual abuse that it “very clearly emerged that the largest percentage of abusers are persons within the family”. But nothing in the study supported that conclusion. Of the over 12,000 child respondents interviewed not a single one reported sexual abuse of any sort by a parent. Of the 2,300 young adults interviewed less than three reported sexual assault by a father.
You may ask why the child-rights groups would rig figures on child abuse. The answer is because spinning a yarn about an urgent and hidden case of abuse or deprivation is the easiest type of work in child policy. A recent example of this “work” is UNICEF’s report on infant mortality from last week which came with panic-stricken headlines about “Pakistan—the riskiest place to be born!” and “India not far behind!”. In this report, UNICEF claims that one in 22 one-month-olds die in Pakistan. These deaths, it appears, are owing to premature birth, complications during labour and delivery, and some severe illnesses such as sepsis, which, incidentally, are likely contracted because of premature birth and/or birth complications. So, what you have is premature babies and those associated with birth complications dying in the first month of birth. This is misleadingly presented as “risky to be born in Pakistan”. Being premature is a risk for any baby anywhere. You could say that hospitals in Pakistan or India are losing more premature babies than better-off countries. That would lay the facts without stigmatising a people, and point to where the weakness lies—in medical technology or expertise, and not with the “culture” or families in general.
The question arises why UNICEF is not providing medical help for premature babies in Pakistan and India instead of wasting funds on studies that tell us what common sense would tell anyone—poor countries need better neonatal facilities? But repeatedly in child policy you see talk and no action. Instead of building schools or hospitals, international child rights NGOs write faux culture studies theses mostly running down non-Western societies. This has spun an industry of invective against parents. A shining example is the sayings of Shantha Sinha, who ushered Western-style anti-family child protection in India as founding head of our National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR): in a speech on infant mortality she says Indians are “indifferent” and “resigned” to a child’s survival because “when the child dies, consolation is drawn from the fact that not all is lost; the mother can give birth to more children, there is always another chance…such an attitude is compounded [among the poor whose] parental instincts are numbed in the struggle for survival”.
Child protection advocates speak of a “culture of abuse” in the family. They say that parents are authoritarian and think they can do as they please with their children. There is some truth to this, but there is no call for the scurrilous leap from paternalism to incest.
So let’s stop listening to the child rights gurus for a moment and do what they keep telling us parents to do—listen to the children. The last few months have seen a tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations by young people accusing their seniors, bosses and bigwigs in their chosen fields of all manner of abuse from sexually charged bullying to rape. Surely if there is such a thing as a culture of abuse, then it exists outside the home. A thriving culture of sexual abuse of young people and minors by non-family adults, especially adults who get access to them on the pretext of their professional association.
Jimmy Saville, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Raya Sarkar’s international list of left-wing academics and the USA Gymnastics doctor’s scandal are among dozens of industry-wide sexual assault scandals that have come to light. From the scale of the problem it is certain that what was going on was widely known and ignored. Talk about a conspiracy of silence!
Not only has the child protection industry been ignoring the culture of abuse of children outside the home, they have been guilty of molesting children themselves. Peter Newell, an iconic figure in international child protection, was jailed last week in the UK after he admitted to a historical case of repeatedly raping a 12-year-old boy. Many other persons recently accused of sexually assaulting minors, such as Kevin Spacey, have been associated with UNICEF campaigns or set up children’s charities of their own. This is bad enough.But Peter Newell was no ordinary child-rights activist. He was a central figure with UNICEF. Ironically, this convicted child rapist’s pet project was a worldwide campaign against the smacking of children!
When Newell’s conviction became public, UNICEF issued a statement saying that since his time it had “set in place strong procedures to vet staff and consultants”. But this “vetting” was clearly not working. Days later we learnt of UNICEF’s deputy head, Justin Forsyth, resigning after news leaked of his having sexually harassed several female staffers while earlier heading another children’s charity, Save the Children!
UNICEF claimed it had no knowledge of Forsyth’s offences at Save the Children. But this is disingenuous if not blatantly false. UNICEF and Save the Children are intimate associates. They run projects together. They have a great interchange of staff and consultants. Their logos appear together in countless reports and other documents, including the Child Abuse India study described earlier. People at UNICEF would have known what Forsyth had been up to at Save the Children. They were just following the standard operating procedure when one of their own was found misbehaving, which was to start a token inquiry and, before it reached any conclusion, to quietly ease them out to a fellow organisation or retire them with full benefits. Exactly what was done when Oxfam in its own words gave a “phased and dignified exit” to its then Country Director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, when his and fellow staffers’ exploitation of Haitian prostitutes was exposed.
Now that the light has been turned on international aid organisations, the scale of misconduct takes your breath away. Several other organisations in Africa and Asia have been revealed to have had officers who used prostitutes or engaged in other sexual misconduct. Save the Children has admitted to hundreds of sexual misconduct cases per year involving its staff.
It is tempting to dismiss all child protection professionals as perverts and exploiters. They did it to parents on much less. But what this does tell us is that the child protection industry has not been under sufficient scrutiny to keep to any standards—whether in character of the people it hires, or in the quality of the work being done in the name of children. It is said that if you give peanuts you get monkeys. But you also get monkeys if you offload bushels-full of ripe bananas in the deep dark jungle. Too much easy money has gone to these children’s charities. Maybe the way to keep out the monkeys is to demand that children’s NGOs stop writing reports and start doing some real work, like paediatric surgery or teaching children. Work that requires opposable thumbs and more results than the hot air that comes from eating too many bananas.
Suranya Aiyar is a New Delhi-based lawyer and mother. She runs the website www.saveyourchildren.in, criticising the role of governments and NGOs in child-related policy