From Doctors to Supreme Court, India's Institutions Failed a 10-Year-Old Rape Survivor

Apart from the abuse going completely unnoticed by her school and family, the court's denial of an abortion will inflict even more violence on this child.

How can children be supported to recognise abuse and empowered to act? Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

It’s a tragedy. A ten-year old child, a baby really, is going to soon have a baby of her own. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that this little child will have to carry her pregnancy to term – a pregnancy that resulted from being raped by her uncle repeatedly over a period of months.

The ruling is based on a medical report that says it is unsafe for this girl to have an abortion. At the time of the Supreme Court ruling, she was at least 28 weeks into her pregnancy.

India’s abortion law, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, has a legal ceiling of 20 weeks for abortions. Section 5 of the Act, however, unambiguously does away with this consideration of the length of pregnancy when “the termination of such pregnancy is immediately necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman.”

When the mother before you is herself a baby, what should a doctor see? A little girl’s life threatening medical emergency or an Act that never even contemplated what its application would mean to the life of a ten-year-old child? How could the doctor who first saw her in the middle of July not have seen the termination of this pregnancy as ‘necessary to save the life’ of the raped and pregnant child before him? As we know, for child survivors of sexual abuse, it is almost impossible to detect a pregnancy until it is too late. Nine times out of ten, it won’t be reported in the 20-week window.

From a medical standpoint, there is nothing to suggest that carrying the pregnancy to term is going to be any safer for this little girl. Carrying and delivering a full size foetus is going to be dangerous and fraught with very serious complications, the physical risk compounding the trauma of sexual violence this child has already endured. If anything, denial of an abortion and procedures to terminate the pregnancy is not merely cruel but stands to inflict more violence on this child.

How did the abuse continue for so long?

Then there’s the bigger picture of what happened. The travesty of a child rendered voiceless and living with abuse that allegedly went on for months. Of not being able to comprehend what was happening to her by someone she knew who was frequenting her home. In the last few months, reports state that she had stopped going to school. Did anyone at her school notice? Did it signal a warning to make someone sit up and wonder if something untoward had happened? When the attendance register against her name started showing ‘absent’, did a teacher or the principal ask about her and why she was no longer in the classroom?

If a child’s place is in school, it stands to reason that her chair going empty should have thrown up questions and become a matter for an enquiry by the school.

Hers is not the first instance of a child being so utterly invisible. In July, a 15-year old girl delivered a baby prematurely in the toilet of her school in Delhi. She had allegedly been raped repeatedly by her neighbour for over a year. It took her producing a child for someone to take notice.

A 2007 study by the Ministry of Women and Child Development found that 53.2% of children who participated in the survey reported some form of sexual abuse, and in 50% of the cases, the abusers were known to the child or were “in a position of trust and responsibility”.

Possible steps to ensure safer childhood

Given that the scale of abuse is so terrifyingly high, how can children be supported to recognise abuse and empowered to act? How can parents and other adults who teach, play sports with and engage with children, be equipped to recognise warning signs and protect them? It is difficult to suspect pregnancy in a child so young, but the tragedy is that the question of her safety never came up. That her trauma, abuse and the signs of harm went completely unnoticed.

If instead, along with studying math and social science, children were also learning at school about keeping safe, were encouraged to think of a trusted adult (or two) they could turn to for help, to know there is recourse from violence and it is not something to be silently endured or have peer support groups they could turn to, it could make way for a safer childhood. It could give voice to a child struggling to make some sense of what was happening to her. So that may be she would be able to tell someone, a didi, parent or a teacher.

The tragedy of this pregnant child is not just that she’s being made to risk her life to produce a child of her own. It is that an entire universe of adults – from the doctors to the courts – failed to notice that she is just a little girl, and so they based their decisions on considerations beyond the only one they should have heeded – protecting her. If parents, schools and adults who meet and talk to children were equipped to recognise signs of trauma and act, it could mean that a ten-year-old child would no longer be invisible.

Deepika Khatri is the head of government partnerships at Aangan, a child protection organisation working to prevent child harm by keeping children safe from trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work and violence and abuse.