By Azera Parveen Rahman
BANGALORE, India, 11 September 2013 - Having an effective response system where police, doctors, lawyers, and other stakeholders are sensitised enough to respond quickly to a crime, and handle the victim sensitively can be crucial in the preliminary investigation of a case, particularly when it comes to proceedings in cases of child sexual abuse, and can contribute to prevent such cases in the future.
Too often victims are further victimised by an insensitive approach, and a long and arduous journey through the criminal justice system.
In the Southern State of Karnataka, efforts are now on to change attitude and create a response system that rightfully puts a child victim as the priority over everything else. A very important piece of the puzzle is the Gender Sensitization and People Friendly Project (GSPP), an ongoing project which aims at bringing about an attitudinal change in the police force while dealing with cases of abuse and violence related to women and children.
In addition, the initiative contributes to update the knowledge of the officials in relation to legislations and new laws.The police, which is the entry point to report any crime, is often accused of being “insensitive” towards handling cases related to women and children.
To shake off that tag and make itself more gender sensitive, the Karnataka State Government, with the support of UNICEF, initiated the GSPPand developed a three-day training module which covers issues like the role of the police in reducing violence on women and children, gender relations, laws and procedures in cases of violence against women and children, trafficking and police behavior, public perception and counseling.
Sub-inspector Anitha Kumar of the Yelahanka police station in Bangalore who took this training in 2007 and is now also the Child Welfare Officer (CWO) of her station says that the training has enabled her to handle cases related to children in a much better way, without traumatising the child victim.
“After undergoing the training I have realised the importance of counselling child victims before interrogation. Once they feel comfortable with the surrounding, theyopen up, and can give details of the incident that helps file a strong case. Otherwise, out of fear and still under shock, they may forget to mention crucial details,” Kumar says.
Careful attention to details like not interrogating children in uniform, as thismay further terrify the victims, or the fact that CWOs talk to the victims in a separate room for privacy, have further helped build confidence. According to Kumar, the GSPP training pays a lot of emphasis on the importance of a gender and child sensitive approach, in addition to giving more information on child related laws like the Juvenile Justice Act, Child Labour Act, and Immoral Traffic Prevention Act.
The police is also encouraged to conduct programmes on child abuse in schools, among women in self-help groups, and in the community.
The GSPP which took off in 2003 in the state has trained 18,427 police members in more than 900 stations till date, both new recruits and in-service personnel. Besides a positive change in outlook, external evaluations have revealed improvement in knowledge, skill, and application of knowledge, resulting in better response and handling of cases. The positive change has been acknowledged by beneficiaries too.
The Karnataka State Police has adopted this module as part of the police training syllabus for all new recruits in its academies. According to Rovina Bastian, one of the GSSP trainers, other states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, have approached Karnataka to replicate this model.
Linking the dots
Although the police is at the frontline of the criminal justice system, there are other stakeholders involved in the response system. A big factor in reporting cases of child abuse is the social stigma attached to it, and therefore in some cases parents hesitate to bring their child to the police station to report an incident.
Enfold, a Bangalore-based NGO, felt that if a child victim could be brought straight to the hospital for medical examination, the experience would be less traumatic.
They came up with the idea of a Collaborative Child Response Unit (CCRU) in hospitals, a collaborative approach through which only a trained paediatrician would interact with the victim, do the medical examination, and ask questions, thereby saving the child from running around from one place to another and re-living the horror in the face of numerous strangers.
“The idea is that the child interacts with only one person, who in turn gives all the information to the police. Itis a collaborative approach, and doctors, nurses, psychologists, the police, lawyers, members of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), NGOs are trained to work in tandem with each other on an emergency basis for the sake of the child,” Sangeeta Saksena of Enfold says.
MadhuriMaganthi, a paediatrician and in-charge of the CCRU in a hospital in the city, talks about her first-hand experience.
“Once a child comes, the paediatrician takes the preliminary history, and then, in a closed room, talks to the child for all the information. If the child is too young or there is a language problem, the parents are also brought in. After that, the medical examination is done, the information is given to the police for the case to be filed, and if needed, the CWC then takes the child”.
Broadly, the doctors’ training touches upon subjects such as child development, dynamics of child abuse, forms of abuse, medical history collection, interviewing techniques that includes forensic examination, evidence collection, laws relating to children, and medical protocol of covering child abuse. .
“The 40-hour training has been good because it has taught us what our medical studies did not. Earlier we would sometimes suspect that a child had been abused, but were not sure how to ask her or him. Now we can counsel the child and know for sure. We also know how to handle every little information, and give it to the police”. The child is also called back later for psychological counselling.
There have been challenges too. “At times, we, doctors are harassed by lawyers and others for the evidence collected against the accused,” Maganthi said. “But with support from various quarters, we try to do the best we can because we believe this is a good initiative to help innocent children,” she explains.
Building children’s skills to prevent violence
Working on a better system that responds effectively to violence and contributes to prevent it also involves working directly with the children to build their skills so they can say no to potential cases of abuse.
Enfold has also designed classroom modules for school children on sexuality education with a focus on personal safety. “As a gynaecologist whenever I used to get a case of child abuse, I felt that abuse, teenage pregnancies could be prevented if children were more aware,” Saksena comments.
“These workbooks that we have designed for children in classes 3-9, therefore, first aims at making a child have a good self image, be aware of their uniqueness, and then instil the fact that their body is to be respected,” Saksena states.
Role plays to show situations in which relatives touch children inappropriately,counseling on what to do if they suffer violence and even a manual for parents on recognizingsigns of child abuse is part of the curriculum promoted by the organization in schools across India. Saksena says that the workbook has been adopted in the curriculum of several schools in the state to teach the subject of Life Skills.
“The positive effect of the workbooks is evident from the feedback of children who write to us about the way in which the lessons have helped them. One girl shared with us how, after suffering abuse in the form of inappropriate touch by two bikers on the road, she screamed for help. While the culprits escaped, as a result of her screaming, people gathered and took down the bike number. They then went to the police station to file a complaint. Another child told us how he had been able to communicate better with his father after reading the book, and yet another child of class 3 wrote that she now understands that no matter what the situation, how she behaves can change the outcome,” Saksena says.
A study by them on the effect of such manuals on students has also been published in two journals.
The organization also conducts workshops in schools and colleges across the country on life skills and personal safety. Over the last four years, such workshops have reached more than 50,000 students in Bangalore alone.
In one such session at the Mathrukanikethan school in the city, a class of 40 students of the 7th grade listen with rapt attention as the trainer speak about the importance of taking care of one’s body and calling for attention if anyone tries to touch them inappropriately.
After several minutes of hush silence during which the trainer speak, the stillness is broken with a deluge of loud responses to the trainer’s queries on what they have learnt during the session.
“We have learnt that it’s important to take care of our body, and to be healthy and strong,” says Priyanka Sharma, one of the students. “This is an important lesson because we have to know how to keep ourselves safe. And in case of emergency, we should call 1098 (child helpline),” adds her classmate, Arun Kumar, while Chaitra, another student, proclaims with confidence the ‘golden rule’: No-go-tell. If anybody tries to invade my space, I will tell him or her not to do it, and I will report it to my parents or some elder person.”