Eleven men have been arrested in Kerala in the past three weeks for allegedly raping minor girls, indication of an alarming rise in cases of child sexual abuse.
One of the arrested men is a Catholic priest. Father Robin Vadakkamcheril, the vicar of St Sebastian’s Church in Kottiyoor in Kannur district, was arrested on February 27 on the charge of raping a 16-year-old girl and getting her pregnant. The incident came to light after the girl delivered a baby. It was also revealed that the priest had allegedly offered money to the victim’s father to take the fall for his crime. On Friday, a priest and two nuns accused of protecting Vadakkamcheril and trying to cover up the crime surrendered to the police in Kottiyoor. The priest and one of the nuns are members of the Wayanad Child Welfare Committee, media reports said.
Then, on March 7, six men were arrested in Muttil in Wayanad district for allegedly raping seven minor girls – all of them inmates of an orphanage, and between 13 and 14 years of age – for two months.
The same day in Walayar in Palakkad district, three suspects were taken into custody for the alleged rape and murder of two sisters, aged 11 and nine years. The body of the older girl was found hanging in her home on January 11. Less than two months later, on March 4, the younger sister was found dead at home under similar circumstances. The police investigation revealed both had been sexually assaulted before they were killed.
The latest arrest came on Wednesday in Kundara in Kollam district. The suspect was taken into custody after the post-mortem on a 15-year-old girl, who had been found hanging in her home two months ago, revealed sexual assault.
Rising abuse, low conviction rate
These incidents have raised concern about the safety of children in the state with the country’s highest literacy rate (94%, according to Census 2011). More worrying is the official data of the Crime Records Bureau of the Kerala Police. It shows that 2,093 cases were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act in 2016, a sharp rise from the 1,569 cases in 2015 and 1,002 cases in 2013. This year, 149 cases were registered in January alone.
Sobha Koshy, chairperson of the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, said almost all sexual abuse cases in India were being reported in Kerala. “It explains the increase in the number of cases [in Kerala] in recent years,” she said. “Rate of reporting is low in other states.”
But while incidents of child sexual abuse are going up every year, the conviction rate remains low – a fact state police officials believe is responsible for the spike in such crimes.
Data from special Pocso courts shows that only 261 of the 3,611 cases registered between November 2012 and December 2015 have been settled. And while 53 accused were convicted, 197 were acquitted.
“The acquittal rates were high as witnesses turned hostile during the trial and families of the victims were not ready to cooperate with the investigation,” said a police official on condition of anonymity.
Koshy suggested that setting up child-friendly courts would result in higher conviction rates. “This will instil confidence in the victims and their relatives,” she said. “And automatically, the conviction rates would go up.”
She said that Kerala must protect its children, especially in the face of a rapidly declining child population. “Children constitute only 23% of Kerala’s population now, down from 27% a few years ago,” she said. “The reduction is due to a decline in birth rate. So, we must consider that every child is precious. We should protect them.”
She added that government-funded orgnaisations such as Childline India Foundation, Child Welfare Committees, and the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights have been reaching out to abused children and working to ensure that adults who prey on minors are punished.
Midlife crisis a factor?
Experts believe that another another contributing factor to rising child sexual abuse cases in Kerala is a psychological crisis, commonly known as a midlife crisis.
Data from 2015 has revealed that 97% of the accused were men – and that 54% of them belonged to the 19-40 age group, and 19% to the 41-60 age group.
“The midlife crisis is experienced by men between 45 years and 55 years,” said Dr Manikandan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Calicut and co-author of the study “Prevalence of Girl Child Abuse in Kerala: An Analysis”.
“They face a lot of issues during this period and may turn to girl children to satisfy their sexual needs,” he explained. “They molest children and threaten the victims to keep the assault a secret.”
No support for survivors
As the number of registered cases rises, many more victims also stay silent. Survivors of child sexual abuse almost always remain elusive as they find it difficult to share their trauma with others, including family and friends.
Media activist and writer Jisha Josh is an exception. A rape survivor, she opened up about the torment she underwent at the age of six. “It was an evening of a summer vacation. I was heading back home alone after the day’s play with my friends. A person came to me and offered to get me gooseberries. He plucked berries and gave it to me. As I started to eat, he fell on me. I didn’t remember when I got up...” she wrote in an article for the news portal ieMalayalam, a few days after the arrest of Father Robin Vadakkamcheril.
She said most sex offenders are heterosexuals, many of them are family members and relatives who take advantage of the “vulnerability of the children”. Therefore, “we should understand that they are not just paedophiles”, she told Scroll.in.
It took Josh over 25 years to recover from the trauma she faced as a child. She thought of committing suicide many times and struggled with depression. Even today, she said, she is yet to completely leave it behind her. “The incident always shakes me,” she said. “I cannot enjoy travelling, I cannot enjoy a movie. It has left a big hole in me and it drains all the love, affection and care I get.”
Josh said society must provide a proper support system for rape victims. “Our society is against the victim,” she said. “I couldn’t see any friendly communication happening with the victims. I think my life would have been better had there been someone to tell me that those are signs of rape trauma syndrome.”