About four weeks ago, I started an online petition on change.org requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to commit to a roadmap to protect children from sexual abuse in India. I am a Member of Parliament and to many it may seem rather odd that I chose to launch an internet petition to address this issue, despite having access to Parliament and government. This piece is an honest attempt to answer this very pertinent question.

Child sexual abuse is an issue that has historically not featured high on the list of political priorities of any Indian government thus far. When I raised the issue in Parliament in July 2014, after a slew of incidents were reported from schools in Bangalore, I was told, much to my astonishment, that I was amongst the first to raise the issue on the floor of the House. This was, admittedly, my first point of engagement with the issue, which led, in the months to follow, to a deeper investigation of the problem. I was then confronted by a range of deeply unsettling facts and figures – including that a child below 16 is raped in India almost every two hours, one below 10 years is raped every 13th hour, and that as many as 53.8% of India’s children have been subjected to these atrocities.

Despite these outrageous numbers, I noticed a strong initial reticence amongst people, everyday citizens, politicians and journalists alike, to talk about child sexual abuse. The outrage was incident-specific, and no concerted attempt was being made to create a sustained and visible conversation on the issue. On my own social media page, I was perplexed for months to see that posts about musicians received far more traction than those about child sexual abuse – it was an issue no one wanted to acknowledge, let alone openly support and talk about. This general indifference was also mirrored by the executive – as the lackadaisical answers to my questions in Parliament on Child Sexual Abuse over three sessions revealed.

People power

In my last nine years as a Member of Parliament, I have learnt that the only way to navigate through even the darkest political corridors is a citizen-driven, crowd-sourced discourse. Citizen involvement is a crucial, non-negotiable aspect to driving change and this, as the crusade against Net Neutrality and the draconian Section 66A of the Information Technology Act has shown us, can be done very effectively through online petitions. In a matter of three weeks, over one lakh citizens have signed this petition, while several thousand continue to share it on their social media pages. Media interest in the petition peaked as we hit the 50,000 mark in week one, and this in turn created a ripple effect – with judges from the Delhi High Court and the Madras High Court, both making mention of child sexual abuse prominently in two different court orders in the last month alone, and even the Supreme Court weighing in on the issue since this petition started. I also finally received a response to a lengthy letter I had written to the women and child development minister, many moons ago, a fortnight into the launch of this petition.

As a legislator and concerned citizen of this country, I have attempted to approach the problem of child sexual abuse and other issues in a multi-pronged manner. I have brought the issue up repeatedly in Parliament and with letters and interventions brought it to the attention of the government and the concerned minister, but with little sign of change so far.

In fact, I joined parents and non-governmental organisations in sending a host of recommendations to the Karnataka government on how to make city schools safer for our children last year. I had personally suggested to the chief minister and home minister a series of measures including the mandatory verification of new and existing school staff, periodic safety audits, and fast-track prosecution. Except for a token announcement of a Child Sex Offenders registry, very little determined action was taken by the state government. On August 3, it was once again reported that another child, this time a three-year-old, was sexually assaulted by the security guard of her school, an incident that has haunted me, and shaken the conscience of my city.

Media pressure

My experience tells me that for government to be goaded into action and for legislative oversight to be effective, mainstream media has to play an important rule. Without adequate and persistent media coverage, Parliament often misses out on addressing crucial issues, leaving it for the courts to make an intervention. Last year, in order to help soldiers exercise their constitutional right to vote, it was a combination of my interventions in Parliament, the Standing Committee on Defence, the media, social media, a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court and citizen engagement through a change.org petition that led to victory. It is my view, that a similar unified front is needed to get the government to commit to a roadmap to prevent child sexual abuse.

India has the shameful distinction of being home to the largest number of sexually abused children in the world. Our children constitute almost 40% of the total population, are the most vulnerable and unrepresented members of our society. Yet, despite repeated instances of atrocities, we have failed to protect them from crime and to ensure their safety. Child sexual abuse in India has indeed reached epidemic proportions. This accurate observation of the Delhi High Court underscores the urgent need for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to commit to an actionable road-map to end child sexual abuse.

In a democracy as vibrant and participatory as India, it is essential that we respect, empower and include the voice of the people. In my view, online petitions are one way of making democracy much more accessible. The response to child sexual abuse needs to evolve from being incident-specific and reactive, to being robust and responsive. This culture of apathy needs to come to an end.

The incumbent government needs to adopt a “maximum governance” driven strategy to ensure the safety, protection and development of our children and acknowledge that this is a highly pervasive form of terrorism that is colouring the growth and development of a whole generation of future Indians.

It is crucial for us to break the silence, and put an end to child sexual abuse. Please sign my petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to commit to a roadmap to address child sexual abuse

Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a member of Parliament and technology entrepreneur.