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Ruchira Gupta expert interview – India

Ruchira Gupta is the Founder-President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide and Apne Aap International, India

When the pandemic started in India, there were major social and economic changes with schools closing and lessons going online. Children stopped going into school and an important area of safeguarding was lost. Child protection systems broke down, people lost their livelihoods, and food shelters ran out of food. Poverty is widespread and worsening, and the number of children who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse has increased. 

Tight COVID lockdown restrictions closed off many outlets for young people. Teenagers go through massive changes and their sexuality is burgeoning. Normally, they’d have had their peer group at school to share these feelings and experiences with. But with schools closed, children became isolated at home. 

Young people have gone online to build friendships. Predators including traffickers have capitalized on the psychology and vulnerability of victims. Grooming can start with an invitation to talk or play a game, and offenders find ways to seduce and trick children. Boys are also being groomed online to become sex buyers and consumers of pornography. 

There are 200 million children in India, and many live below the poverty line. In the country’s red light districts, thousands of women and children have faced starvation since the government imposed strict quarantines and mothers were not able to earn money. 

Sex traffickers have taken advantage by paying for children in red light districts to be sexually abused online. India is the third largest consumer of pornography and there is big demand for this content. It has also become a leading producer of pornography featuring child sexual abuse, and there is a lot of money being made. 

Since the start of the pandemic, ChildLine in India has experienced a 50% rise in calls for help. Some children are stuck at home with their abuser. In these situations, it is common for the family to try to cover things up. We know that children are told to shut up. There are also situations in which family members are scared to report. 

Victim blaming is also a problem. If it comes out publicly that a girl has been abused, she faces stigma. People in the community will say she must be sexually active or has done something to cause it. 

Victims are being sexually abused and then living with fear and shame. The trauma is something they deal with all their lives, and it can crush them. They lose self-confidence, and they suffer from PTSD, self-blame, anger, and guilt. Without support and counseling, there is a risk that patterns of self-destructive behavior will continue. 

A lot can be done to raise awareness, and it’s sad that it’s not happening. India’s government is ignoring the problem. They have a cybercrime cell, but it’s not that big and has been used for surveillance, so people are scared of it. 

Tech companies can play a bigger role and be huge partners. They should take more responsibility because they’re the ones who provide the platforms for this content to flow and they’re making lots of money. They say give us data so we can create Artificial Intelligence filters, but this comes up against concerns about digital privacy and the debate is ongoing. 

Many adults don’t know how to discuss sexual abuse with their kids or how to talk with policymakers. We have to give parents and teachers the tools and opportunities to bring things into the open. 

Importantly, we need to have conversations with children so they know they shouldn’t carry the burden of responsibility. We need to name abusers and punish perpetrators. It is only by shining a spotlight that we can dispel the dark.

This interview was shared as part of our 2021 report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards.