Dangerous silence around male sex abuse in India

Societal stigma prevents boys from speaking out


October 4, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Dangerous silence around male sex abuse in India

Despite horrific cases of male rape, voices of abused men and boys are being silenced by societal stigma (Photo: Lucas Metz/Unsplash)

Despite shocking cases of male sexual abuse, rape laws under the Indian Penal System do not make enough room for male victims, who are often terrified to come forward due to the barrier of societal shame and a lack of legal recourse.

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In 2018, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a national public health agency of the United States, revealed that nearly a quarter (24.8 pc) of men in the US had experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime, and about one in four male victims of completed or attempted rape first experienced it between the ages of 11 and 17.

In India, no such official, conclusive data exists. With rape cases of women in Delhi seeing a chilling rise of 63.3 pc in 2021 as compared to 2020, and recently the constant reports of violent gang rapes, perhaps it is unsurprising that the focus is often on rape of females. However, the complete lack of spotlight on male sexual abuse, most importantly missing from even being mentioned in the country’s laws, does not take away from the frightening reality that it does occur in Indian society as well.

In 2014, police in Muzaffarnagar, UP, registered cases against three inmates of a government-run protection home, for allegedly “sodomising” a fellow inmate, and a Madrasa teacher, for similar sexual assault on a 12-year-old student in Shamli. A further slew of cases was reported in 2017 in Mumbai, when a 13-year-old boy was raped in Powai and another 16-year-old schoolboy was raped, blackmailed and physically assaulted by 15 other boys for a year, the shocking incident confirmed by a medical examination.

Although definitely far fewer than the number of reports of girls and women being sexually assaulted, these cases may not be as atypical as they seem. A 2007 study of child abuse in India, conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, supported by United Nations Children’s Fund, as well as NGOs like Save The Children and Prayas, revealed that of the surveyed children who reported having experienced severe sexual abuse, 57.3 pc were boys and 42.7 pc were girls. A November 2020 study conducted by SP (Railways) and a commandant of a women’s police battalion, R Nishanthini, in Kerala showed that boys were victims of sexual abuse in 17 pc of cases, and in several of these incidents, the alleged perpetrators were women.

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Stigma silences victims

Moreover, experts say that the actual number of cases may be grossly underreported, largely due to the stigma and shame surrounding assault of males in India’s patriarchal society. After the 2017 Powai rape, the 13-year-old victim died by suicide, possibly due to the fear of his family and peers finding out.

Uma Subramanian is a social worker who co-founded the initiative Aarambh India in 2013, an NGO that works with families of victims of child abuse. In 2017, the organisation launched India’s first hotline to report CSAM – Child Sexual Abuse Material and conducted research on advocacy around the issue and implementation of the law, namely POCSO: the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

“I think especially when we started, there was a huge lack of awareness around the fact that boys can also be abused, and that they can actually find it even more difficult to disclose the trauma or find support. What we do see now is that slowly but steadily there has been a shift over the past decade, at least in the metro cities, there is some understanding that boys can also be victims of abuse, but having said that, I think the whole systemic support for boys, be it social work or counselling support, or the attitude towards boys, I think there is still a long way to go in terms of gendering that. Because if you look at the age range within male sexual abuse, if it is a younger child, the system is more proactive and sensitive, but in cases with older males, suddenly the complexities are much more. The system is in a dire state,” Subramanian tells Media India Group.

From 2015 to 2019, 13,184 cases were registered under POCSO, and out of these, 2,213 cases were concerned with the sexual abuse of 2,250 boys. The 2007 study by the government had also revealed that 50.2 pc of children never reported the abuse to anyone, and children on the street, those subjected to child labour, and children in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual assault. Although this data seems to shed light on who is more susceptible to abuse, Subramanian emphasises it is a dangerous mistake to believe that sexual abuse is poverty-specific.

“I think sexual abuse is one crime that cuts across regions, socio-economic barriers, class, or caste.”

“I don’t believe you can categorise it as happening more in a certain area. Cases do not only happen in families with under-privileged backgrounds; what it really means is that people in the middle class or upper middle class are not going to the police station and reporting. We have seen sexual abuse cases across the board and often middleclass families do not want the system or authorities to enter their house despite sexual abuse being reported inside, whereas if the child is from an underprivileged background, the system can often forcefully enter their life, they don’t have a choice. So, one has to really understand that this is not a poverty-related issue, this is an issue that affects all sections society, and one of the main reasons is that there is a lack of conversation around it,” she explains.

Rather, Subramanian blames familial stigma, saying fear of repercussions is often so high because unlike, for example, the concept of “stranger danger” or rape of women, most abusers of children are known to the victim, which causes a significant barrier in reporting the abuse.

“Data, both national and regional, shows that a majority of the perpetrators involve a known person; it is usually a distant or even immediate blood relative, neighbours, community members or school teachers. This absolutely [hinders children from speaking out]; the closer the person is to the family, the harder it becomes for the child, and imagine the plight of the child that has to go through the trauma of not only sexual abuse, then build up the courage needed to report it, but they also deal with the fear of ‘what will happen to my father or uncle, my mother is going to hate me, my entire family will hate me.’ And this is especially why punishments like death penalty do not work as a deterrent,” she adds.

Long road ahead

Subramanian explains that the support system, both legal and the victim’s family, are the most important in reporting incidents and ensuring that measures are taken. Thus, rather than only focusing on children, NGOs like Aarambh also turn their attention to the adult stakeholders to increase awareness.

“There is no law to ensure that comprehensive sexual education is given to our young people. Everything is looked at from a perspective of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, and the stigma, the shame that surrounds this issue is very high, and those are the reasons I think we don’t see victims come forward and even when they do, often the system does not respond in the most sensitive way that it is supposed to,” she says.

Most social workers also stress that the problems lie with the poor implementation of laws, rather than with the law itself.

“We have enough laws in India, and I think POCSO is one of the most robust laws out there. What we need, what will actually make a difference, is more financial and human resources to make sure that some of mechanisms that are mentioned in POCSO are actually implemented on the ground,” says Subramanian.

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But although this may be true for POCSO, the laws for adult males, experts believe, are virtually non-existent. Not only is there a glaring gap in data of male sexual abuse beyond the age of 18, there has always been a strange distinction in Indian law and even media reports where men are “sodomised” rather than “raped.” This effectively removes male and transgender survivors from the conversation, because under Section 375 of the IPC, rape is considered a crime that only a man can do to a woman. In 2013, as officials scrambled to change laws after the horrific Nirbhaya case, the Centre had attempted to make rape a gender-neutral crime. However, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act prevented this, with some activist groups arguing that rape was unambiguously a patriarchal crime. The decision, although severely criticised, has until date not been changed, although in 2019, another bill was proposed in the Rajya Sabha to bring gender neutrality in sexual offences.

“Of course, men also need safeguards in the laws to protect them. The issue in India, and rightly so, is that because the majority of the perpetrators are male, the whole concept of them being victims is something that gets lost. But men are undeniably vulnerable to sexual assault as well, so this discussion needs to happen,” says Subramanian.



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