FAILURE TO TAKE INFORMED CONSENT
Apart from its errors in data gathering and wilful misrepresentation, the authors of the Report “Study on Child Abuse: India 2007” (http://wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf) also breached their own “Ethical Guidelines” regarding informed consent from the respondents surveyed. The chapter on Research Methodology refers to informed consent having been taken from the child respondents and their parents.
“Informed consent” indicates that consent was taken not just in relation to participation in the survey, but as to the purpose and substance of the research. In plain English, this means that the respondents and, where they were children, their parents, were required to be frankly informed as to what the respondents were going to be questioned about and why.
However, the consent form for parents gives no description of the research intended to be conducted. It merely seeks the consent of parents to conducting a group discussion and interview with the children, with an undertaking that personal information of the respondents will be destroyed at the end of the study.
MISLEADING RESPONDENTS AS TO THE NATURE AND INTENTION OF THE RESEARCH
The consent form refers to an “Information Sheet” given to the parents (though it is really not clear how many, if any, of the parents were literate). Very suspiciously, this Information Sheet has not been annexed to the Report. A glaring gap in disclosure which gives rise to doubts as to whether any material information about the research was given to parents of the children surveyed.
The Report refers to something called an “Information Schedule”; this is the term used for the questionnaire that was administered to child respondents surveyed for the Report. If by the “Information Sheet”, the consent form meant this questionnaire, then we might be looking, not just at a failure to obtain informed consent, but a much more culpable breach of ethics, viz., deliberately misleading child respondents and their parents as to the nature of the research being conducted.
The questionnaire states the purpose of the research as follows: “We are studying the situation and difficulties faced by our children in the country. It is important that information on children’s background, health and other childhood experiences is gathered. This will greatly help in having programmes and schemes for their betterment.” This suggests a run-off-the-mill inquiry into the health and background of children, which is anything but what this research was about. Given that the Report itself states upfront that it was prompted by a belief that there is widespread, hidden abuse by Indian parents of children, informed consent required that this belief be conveyed to the respondents, or if this would be confusing for little children, to their parents and guardians.
CAN YOUNG CHILDREN MEANINGFULLY GIVE CONSENT?
Even if consent had been taken, and the Report makes much of the fact that consent forms were also given to the children interviewed, given that this is supposed to be a Report about respecting the child as an individual, it is surprising that its authors should believe that it is ethical to claim that they had consent of children for their research, especially when their child respondents were as young as 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 years old.
If this research respected small children as individuals, then it should have stated honestly at the outset that there is no equivalent to obtaining adult consent or adult comprehension of questions asked from small children for any research, and that the reader must always have that caveat in mind when noting the responses of children in the Report. This is the reason why the law does not recognise a child as a competent contracting party.
The claims of the Report to “ethical” research and being respectful of the child are particularly hypocritical when we recall the kinds of role play and scenarios of imagined sexual abuse and bloody sexual assault that were put to the children, as young as 5 to 12 years in age, in the part of the questionnaire dealing with sexual abuse. As discussed in Part IV of this paper, if the authors were concerned about sexual abuse, they should have made the case for new or stronger sexual assault laws regarding children in India. There appears to have been no reason to survey children on this issue, and in this intrusive manner, except to manipulate their responses to make exaggerated and biased claims about abuse of children in India.
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.