NEW DELHI: Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi recently supported a petition by filmmaker-activist Insia Dariwala on stating “male child sexual abuse is an ignored reality in India.”

Gandhi responded to the petition saying that a one-of-its-kind study on male child sexual abuse survivors would be conducted. She also said, “Another much-neglected sphere of child sexual abuse is male survivors. Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is gender neutral. Boys who are sexually abused as children spend a lifetime of silence because of the stigma and shame attached to male survivors speaking out. It is a serious problem and needs to be addressed.”

In the wake of outrage over the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, the Union Cabinet issued the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance on April 21 which sought death penalty for rapists of girls less than 12 years of age and strict punishment for rapists of girls less than 16 years of age. According to the ordinance, new fast-track courts will be set up to deal with such cases and special forensic kits for rape cases will be given to all police stations and hospitals in the long term.

Now, days after the ordinance being promulgated by President Ram Nath Kovind, the Centre is planning to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. It said on its official Twitter handle, “The government has always strived to develop gender-neutral laws. Government has proposed amendment in the POCSO Act to seek justice for survivors of child sexual abuse.”

Even Gandhi said, following the petition, she had instructed the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to look into the issue in November last year, which was followed by a conference held by the NCPCR.

“As per the recommendations that emerged from the conference, it was unanimously decided that there should be an amendment to the existing scheme for the victims of child sexual abuse to also include compensation for boys who have been sexually abused or raped.”, she stated.

The Indian Legislation, although, still does not recognize the fact that males can be victims of sexual abuse and rape too. The IPC Sections 354A, 354B, 354 C and 354 D, dealing with sexual harassment, disrobing, stalking and voyeurism, fail to recognize men as a victim but only as perpetrators. In fact, Section 375 of the IPC, which deals with the definition of rape, does not acknowledge male rape either. The definition itself starts with, “when a man commits rape” and goes on to define rape, in this case, of a woman. Even when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, disregards males being a victim to this.

In 2007, Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, supported by United Nations Children's Fund, Save the Children and Prayas, conducted a study to understand the magnitude of child abuse in India, they found that 53.22% children faced one or more forms of sexual abuse; among them, the number of boys abused was 52.94%. This is an appalling statistic for a country that does not consider male rape and sexual abuse, child or otherwise, as an actual crime.

Not just children, but there are many adult survivors of rape and abuse as well. There have been numerous cases that go unreported.

Talking about her encounter with male child sexual abuse, Dielle Lobo says, “I once worked as a counselor in a local government-aided school where a third grade boy was sexually assaulted by a group of 11 year old boys, in the male washroom on the school premises. When the school authorities learnt of this, they promptly rusticated the boys responsible but in the bargain, the third grade boy also left as he had developed a grave fear towards school and those seniors.”

She further speaks about the reasons why such incidents go unreported, “In my experience, sexual abuse happens just as often and with ease to boys, as much as they happen to girls. Unfortunately, in the various classes of society of India, rape and sexual abuse is a taboo. It is even more hushed up when it comes to a male, particularly a male child, admitting that he has been sexually abused.”

With movements like the “#MeToo” campaign which led to so many females speaking up about their experiences, it is important to talk about the other side too. This brings up the issue of adult male rapes in the country.

To start with, it has been and still is difficult to find any proper data regarding the incidents of male abuse and rape in India. One of the main reasons is, as mentioned already, is the fact that the legislature still does not recognize males as victims of sexual crimes.

A survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, talked about his experience with harassment and even molestation in the workplace, “I was working with a client for my company. She was a major client and would constantly make sexual advances at me. She would touch me very inappropriately and pass sexually derogatory comments at me. At first, I liked the attention but then she started sending lewd pictures and even threatened my girlfriend to stay away from me. When I tried talking to her, she told me she would kill the contract and blame me for it. This caused a lot of issues in both my personal and professional life. I had to eventually request the company to let go of me which affected my life in a big way. She still would try to contact me and call me. I had to block her on all social media platforms. I finally told my boss at the company the actual reason for my termination of the contract I had with them and he didn’t believe me at all. I had to provide proof after which I was told to keep silent and was paid the duration of the contract.”

Talking about why he did not choose to speak up, he adds, “I chose not to speak up because firstly, this was one of the largest contracts I had gotten and I did not want to ruin it since the payout was huge and would bump my company up a level as a tier-one level event company. I also didn’t because I knew no one would believe me since she was 34 and I was 21. I did speak to some of my friends about it; who did not believe me at first and thought I was making excuses to avoid working for the client. It also caused problems between me and my girlfriend so then they thought that I was making it up to get out of the relationship.”

This also gives us the glaringly obvious reason behind inadequate data regarding cases of male sexual crimes. Not just the law, but also the patriarchal society that constantly reinforces the stereotypes regarding how males should behave and how females should behave. The undertones that are always present in our society is also seen while making laws for rape and sexual abuse. Activists mainly talk about mindset being a huge part in the silence that follows while acknowledging male rapes and abuse.

Another survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke up about his experience as a victim of CSA. He says, “My experience with one of my cousin sister wasn’t very appropriate. I was in first grade when I remember meeting her. She used to stay in a different city so we used to meet only during summers. I do not have a very clear memory of those incidents because it happened when I was five years old. Although there is some that I can recall very vividly. This one time, she asked me and my twin brother if we wanted to play a game. We agreed. The game was similar to “Hide and Seek”. Then she took me upstairs where we were alone and hugged me inappropriately and abruptly kissed me. This went on for a while till my mother called both of us downstairs and it ended there. The next time, she again made us play the same game and this time, she took me to the bedroom and wrapped both of us in a bed sheet. She proceeded to take my hand and asked me to place it under her clothes. Afterwards, I was told to do all kinds of inappropriate things, till my brother entered the room where she told him that I wasn’t with her. After he left, I was asked to kiss her. This went on for many days for a period of 5-7 years and has now affected my life in a huge way. The taboo surrounding such incidents made things worse.”

With the law not recognizing males as victims, there is also the added societal stigma attached to sexual crimes against males that result in most cases going unreported. To add to that, there is also the fact that Section 377 under the IPC states that the victim of sexual assault can be jailed if the perpetrator is of the same gender because the law states that it is punishable irrespective of whether its consensual or not.

This is a huge blow to speaking up about such incidents, not only for males but also for females as well. Talking to one of the activists of the LGBT+ community, Harrish Iyer, he says, “Technically as the law stands, people who have been abused can go behind bars. Although, the police has to be really insensitive to let something like that happen.”

He further adds, “We have the POCSO Act which was previously a gender neutral act but after the Kathua-Unnao fallout, even that has been diluted now. The death penalty that they introduced is only applicable to crimes committed against girls below 12 years of age. Although I do not agree with the decision but death penalty for the rape of a girl child and not for the same done to a male child makes it look like the rape of the male child isn’t such a heinous crime.”

Another survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, talked about her experience as a survivor of same-sex sexual abuse. She says, “I was about seven or eight years old when my aunt came to live with us. We shared the same room. She used to abuse me, physically too. I told my mother about it and she beat me and said that I was telling lies and making up stories. She called me a bad girl and said that her sister could never do such a thing. She dragged me in front of the whole family and told them about it. Even my aunt was there and she denied everything. My relationship with my family after this incident has been very bad. They have even made jokes about it afterwards. I have never been able to talk about it, even with my close friends. I have a friend who is a lawyer and I mentioned the incident to him without disclosing that it was me and asked if a case can be filed. He said the case could be filed but it was better if it isn’t.”

Even incidents involving same-sex abuse go unreported due to the stigma attached to same-sex relationships as a whole. There are so many cases involving same-sex and males being victims that still go unreported and never spoken about because of the mindset and reaction of the people towards it. Some, like mentioned above, are either silenced or disregarded because it is “non-existent” inside most of our heads.

The Supreme Court recently came out with a ruling regarding the Domestic Violence Act, granting protection for women which includes any domestic relationship, extending outside a married relationship. The new ruling stated that the Act would still be applicable after a divorce is filed. Talking to a Men’s Rights activist, Deepika Narayan, she says, “In most countries, they have laws to protect men from domestic violence. In India, that is not the case. We also have 498A that is a separate law, which sees domestic violence as a completely criminal act. That also prohibits men from filing a case of cruelty against the wife. He can go and seek divorce on the grounds of cruelty but the woman does not get punished for perpetuating domestic violence, which is very sad. With so much talks of gender equality, we still have such a bias in the law. There are so many cases that have come into light where the man is tortured extremely and brutally. It becomes very difficult for a man to seek shelter. That is where our laws are right now.”

Speaking about a recent case, she further said, “Something that happened very recently was that in Madhya Pradesh, the cops started receiving calls by husbands who were being beaten by their wives. Earlier, they did not have a separate category under which they could register the complaints but now they have found a separate category where such calls are contacted separately. They have got 200 complaints in one month and it has been covered in some newspapers. I think this should be followed across the country; this kind of analysis should be done throughout the country. The lawmakers should realize that domestic violence is a gender neutral problem. Anybody who is a victim of violence should be given protection, irrespective of their gender.”

There are not many cases that have been reported when it comes to male domestic violence. Trying to bring light to such cases is another man, Ameen Shareeff, who was a victim to domestic violence himself. Shareeff set out on a biking expedition throughout the country last year, in hopes of helping male victims of domestic violence speak out about their experiences. He also runs a Facebook page, ‘Speak Out Mard’, that urges men going through domestic violence to come out and speak up against it. Throughout his journey, many biking clubs and people from all over the country have come out in support of this movement and his journey.

Sexual crimes and abuse have no gender and it’s time that both the society and our legislature realize that. This does not in any way take anything away from how grave female sexual abuse and assault is. It is just bringing to light the fact that there should be no bias while meting out justice to the ones who ask for it.