We got cable TV when I was around nine. Suddenly, SONY and StarPlus were being aired right to our homes, and with that, the 4 to 6 p.m. slot was booked for a bunch of American sit-coms from the ’80s: Small Wonder, Bewitched, Silver Spoons and Diff’rent Strokes.
Even if the story line was flimsy (rich white man taking in two orphan boys from Harlem), Diff’rent Strokes, which aired on Indian channels in the nineties, won audiences on the strength of endearing performances from its young stars.
The sitcom’s trademark was a number of “very special episodes” on raging social issues. One of them dealt with something not often portrayed in the cotton-candy world of situation comedy: child sexual abuse. First aired 30 years ago, The Bicycle Man still horrifies in its portrayal of Mr. Horton, the unsuspecting child molester. It throws light on some pressing issues: that abuse can come from the least-expected quarters, be they relatives, neighbours, or people who seem so nice. And how easily children can fall into the trap, and be shamed into keeping quiet.
It’s not perfect. There are parts where you want to wring the director’s neck for trying to inject laughs in places where someone with the slightest bit of integrity would cringe. And the less said about the horrid timing of the laughter track, the better. However, in spite of that, in spite of the ‘lecturing’ it slipped into towards the end, this special was a start.
In India, we’re yet to see TV serials (with the notable exception of Satyameva Jayate) take on the responsibility of raising awareness on child abuse. Even today, sadly, many parents shy away from telling their children what constitutes an improper touch, or that their body belongs to them alone. Sex education is viewed as something shameful, not “part of our culture”.
If that be the case, it’s a sorry culture we belong to. India has the world’s largest number of sexually-abused children. A 2007 report by the Department of Women and Child Development, based on interviews with 12,500 children in 13 States, found that two out every three children in India were physically abused. At least 53.22 per cent of child respondents reported facing sexual abuse in one form or the other, of which nearly 22 per cent said they faced severe abuse. In 50 per cent of the cases, the abuser was known to the child or in a position of responsibility. Most children did not report the matter to anyone.
The report adds: “In India, a child below 16 years is raped in every 155th minute, a child below 10 every 13th hour and one in any 10 children sexually abused at any point of time.”
In short, it’s high time we started the conversation.
(Read about CRY’s Child Rights Manifesto here.)