There’s nothing quite as noble as defending the defenceless. Child protection is everyone’s responsibility. After all, it was John F. Kennedy, one-time president of the United States, who said “protecting children is protecting the most valuable resource and hope for the future”. The first point of child protection against sexual violence and abuse starts with the parents. Conscious and effective steps should be taken to ensure these little ones are taken out of environments that could cause harm to them in any way. But what about the ones that have already suffered some form of sexual violence? Don’t they also require protection and support as they go through such a harrowing point in their life?
Luckily, Assam activist Miguel Queah is dedicating his life to providing the much-needed support to children who have been victims of sexual violence through his organisation – Universal Team for Social Action and Help (UTSAH). Ever since its establishment in 2011, UTSAH has become one of the leading child rights organisations in all of India. UTSAH provides legal support to victims and ensures the perpetrators of heinous crimes are punished according to the full extent of the law. Also, the organization provides psychological and social support to these victims who may have been severely traumatized as a result of the experience.
Miguel, born in Tezpur and brought up in Guwahati, says being a child once before, it is heart-wrenching to even imagine what abused children must be going through. He believes every child who has been abused and violated deserves support and protection. This is why his organization has provided both legal and psychosocial support to over 400 child victims of sexual violence. They have also taken preventive measures against this abominable crime by educating over 2,000,00 (two lakh) children across schools and communities in Assam on how to always stay protected and safe against predation.
Miguel’s biggest challenge stems from the difficulty in securing quick justice for the families of these victims, causing them to lose faith in the justice system. Another huge challenge he faces while protecting child victims is witness protection. There is no adequate witness protection for these victims, especially when the perpetrators are highly influential people. “This is because the state is yet to implement the Witness Protection Scheme (2018), so it’s difficult to protect these children. The victims could be hurt before they could testify against their crime,” he observes.
The idea to set up an organisation that operates in this capacity came after working with several victims of sexual violence and being a victim of sexual abuse himself. He has since run several media campaigns to generate a buzz around the need for a proper justice system that protects children from sexual violence. He says, “After two years of graduating, a bit of work experience, and some bit of mentorship from Late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, I was sure that I wanted to work in the development space. When I moved to Assam in 2010, I had reached out to few conscious people (Pallavi Barua, Shankardev Chowdhury, Binayak Dutta, Monmi Das, Rashmi Tiwari) and started UTSAH. Our vision was to engage with vulnerable groups in Assam and help them achieve their rights.”
“In our quest to gain wisdom, we had interacted with several vulnerable communities across Assam, especially in slum areas and rural communities. In our FGDs, we realised that children were the most disorganized group and had no power to assert their rights, and were, therefore, the most vulnerable. After reflecting upon our learnings from the community, we decided to make child rights our area of focus and partner with an informal community in the Bamunimaidan area that housed more than 120 vulnerable children. While working with the children in the community, we addressed most issues related to elementary education, malnutrition and child labour.
However, issues like child sexual abuse and domestic corporal punishment recurrently affected children’s development. Therefore, we made child protection our thematic area of intervention, within which preventing and responding to child sexual abuse became our primary focus area. Moreover, the need was urgent as there were no specialised organisations in Assam that were working primarily on child sexual abuse. UTSAH grew bit by bit. I find the work worthwhile because I too survived child sexual abuse. I believe that it is important to build an ecosystem that can not only prevent child sexual abuse but can also help children to rehabilitate and heal should they be victims of this crime,” Miguel adds.
According to reports from the Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), India currently tops the list with 11.7% of the total report. He accredits this to the unchecked virtual freedom given to social media users. “The virtual space is out of control. While many social media forums like Facebook and Twitter have strong child abuse prevention policies, spaces like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger are completely unregulated in terms of child protection. This area needs more attention as we have to navigate the thin line between protecting children and protecting the privacy rights of social media users as well.
“It is a big challenge in India as a whole. 48,043 children were sexually abused in India in 2019 alone despite India’s impressive Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO Act)… Changing the mindset of child sex offenders is a long battle. Probably, if we start working on issues like gender, sexuality, sex and domestic violence now we can be hopeful of seeing a future generation of people who do not subscribe to violence against children and women; people who consciously refrain from exploiting children. Currently, people who have demands of CSAM can only be dealt with by law enforcement. Children, on the other hand, need to be made aware of the risks of the virtual space through training and campaigns,” he adds.
Miguel has been instrumental in conceptualising the Assam Police Sishu Mitra Programme, one of the largest and comprehensive child-friendly policing programmes in the country, and has been the driving force behind the establishment of the Assam Police Sishu Mitra Resource Center to assist the police in crimes against children.
Giving us an insight into how he came up with the idea and the procedures he had to follow for implementing the programme, Miguel explains, “My contact with the Police system started in 2013 when I was handling my first child sexual abuse case. The incident came to light while we were running a community-based child protection programme in an informal settlement in Bamunimaidam. While walking with the victim child on her journey towards justice, I had observed several gaps in the way that the police were responding to the case. The FIR was refused, the recording of the statement under Section 161 of the CrPc (criminal procedure code) was not child friendly, the behaviour of the police was rough, and the investigation was delayed. Since the POCSO Act was new (POCSO Act, the law that deals with child sexual abuse, was enacted in 2012), most police personnel were unaware of the procedural mandates. I began advocating with the higher authorities for better implementation of the law and accountability for erring officials. My approach was very adversarial. Every time something went wrong, I would launch a tirade against the police system. In February 2017, a 14-year-old child was killed due to police atrocity at the Bharalumukh Police Station. Aghast by this transgression, I started a media campaign which finally led to the Gauhati High Court taking a suo moto PIL on the child’s death. This PIL finally led to the arrest of 3 police officials. Though there was a sense of fulfilment, I realised that for the police system to reform, something more than activism was needed. This is the point where I began my engagement with the Assam Police. I started to train Police officials in child-friendly policing.”
In 2018, Miguel approached the then director-general of police Mukesh Sahay with initiatives that he believed were crucial for the police to undertake to transform the Assam Police into a child-friendly police force.
“Sahay asked me to go and meet additional director general of police Harmeet Singh, who had just come back to the state after his long deputation in New Delhi.
When I proposed the set of activities (training, social media campaigns, technical handholding support etc) to Singh; he asked me to compile the set of activities and turn it into a full-fledged programme. With support from UNICEF Assam, I prepared the programme document and presented it to Singh, who finally gave a go-ahead and made a commitment to support and integrate the programme into the Assam Police system. This is how the Assam Police Sishu Mitra Programme came into being. Later, when Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta joined as the director-general of police, the programme was further strengthened and gained enormous momentum. Surendra Kumar, inspector general of police too provided valuable feedback for the roll-out of the programme components. This programme is a classic example of co-creation where a civil society organisation, a state agency and a UN agency have come together for the common goal of protecting children. Since the police leadership owns this programme, there have been no challenges in rolling out the various aspects of this programme,” he smiles.
Against this keep-quiet culture, this young determined activist is working tirelessly to protect children from sexual abuse. Several incidents prove that the keep-quite culture owes largely to the fact that most of the offenders in child sexual abuse cases are people known to the victims – uncles, neighbours, teachers, fathers and grandfathers. Therefore, families often discourage children from reporting incidents of sexual crime fearing loss of close family members or friends, loss of relationship with families amongst others. Moreover, since sexual assault is perceived as a scar on the honour of the victim, there is a culture of veiling of sexual crimes especially in cases where the case doesn’t result in death, extreme physical trauma or pregnancy. Additionally, the thought of an exhausting and exhaustive justice delivery process demotivates victims and their families from reporting incidents of sexual abuse.
“I have seen so many cases up-close. There are several instances where children refuse to report sexual assault by a teacher for the fear of being isolated by the school authorities. There are other instances where mothers prohibit children from reporting incidents of abuse committed by an uncle. Many families don’t report sexual violence on children by a father for the fear of losing economic support. It is a very complex area to work in,” he describes.
Education for all children and social welfare are other issues Miguel says must be addressed as quickly as possible, beyond the mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009).
“The National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2017-18 household survey put the number of out-of-school children in India, between 6-17 years of age, at 3.22 crore. Also, despite progress in the implementation of India’s Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, India contributes almost 30% of the total number of child brides in the world. 48043 children were sexually abused in India in 2019 despite India’s impressive Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO Act). There are several other issues like child trafficking, children with disability, speedy justice, witness protection and others that have to be addressed in India. The North East region, like the rest of the country, has similar problems related to implementation. However, the geopolitics of the regions increases vulnerability. Protection and rehabilitation of children of conflict areas and migrant children are still a challenge that needs redressal. Though India has some of the world’s best child rights policies and laws, implementation remains a massive challenge. As an implementing agency, we seek to reduce the gap between policy and action,” he observes.
Thinking long term, Miguel plans to do, even more, beginning with strengthening his relationship with Assam Police on the Assam Police Sishu Mitra Programme to provide justice quicker for victims, as well as building capacity to increase his reach and influence, providing support to over 3000 children every year through the Assam Police Sishu Mitra Centre; a task that is achievable in the foreseeable future.
“Our programmes are generally aligned with our mission of securing speedy justice for children. We wish to scale our case management programme to be able to provide high-quality support person services (under the POCSO Act) to children affected by sexual violence. To that effect we plan to work in partnership with UNICEF, the State Child Protection Society, Government of Assam, to strengthen and activate the support person component of the POCSO Act across all the districts of Assam,” he notes.