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Don't just see but also hear the Dancing Child-Part II
- Dr. Arshiya Sethi

March 4, 2022

Don't just see, but also hear the child who dances

The website is an open, free resource to which people go when they want to understand arts and the intersection with the Law. Recently, Manch UK included our work in its record of important work done during the COVID pandemic. The fact that there is an website, the fact that people have started going to it and the fact that we are allowed to discuss such issues in forums like Narthaki or even in the general media, are all reassuring, positive and encouraging developments. They give us the fuel and energy to continue this work that is being done pro bono.

Less affirming is the sharings that are done of travesties and abuse of power that threatens the very ecosystem of the arts. Every sharing makes the heart sink and serves to remind us about the enormity of the task at hand. Sometimes it helps us sharpen our focus and attention on a particularly disturbing issue at hand and organically prioritizes our work ahead. Sometimes, the prompt comes from an unrelated event. Sometimes both spheres, the core and the peripheral, imbricate.

In January this year, I began a focus on the rights of the child artistes, catalyzed by the Supreme Court of India ruling that the 'skin to skin' contact was not necessary for a crime to come under the purview of the POCSO Act. In this column, I continue unpacking the ideas of how to keep the child in the arts, safe. I want to share a disturbing story from the arts and how a vulnerable child has suffered. It makes me angry, but believing in the intrinsic goodness of mankind I hope that it happened out of ignorance. But really ignorance is no excuse since we are expected to know the law of the land. We need to be proactive about it. This column helps in that direction and I hope that many of you who work in the arts with children will read this till the end.

As a background to the incident that I will relate, we need to know about the POCSO Act. The POCSO Act is the special legal provision enacted in 2012, to protect the child from sexual abuse. The act is a gender-neutral act and sees sexual abuse as a violation of the child's human rights. The Child is unequivocally described as one under the age of 18 years.

A child is believed to be more vulnerable, helpless, and susceptible to both, long-and short-term harms, if made a victim of abuse, including sexual abuse. Such harms include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, poor self-esteem, anxiety disorders and a host of general psychological distress. Studies have revealed that future problems could also encompass drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and suicide.

The need for the POCSO Act was felt even though the existing Indian Penal Code and other laws had provisions to deal with such misdemeanors, but it did not differentiate between adult and child victims, or cover the issue of sexual abuse, including rape, in the case of a male child. The POCSO Act provides for special courts to pursue the trial of such matters and incorporates child friendly procedures for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and the trial of offences. It also provides for compensation in the case of disruption of the teaching and learning process, loss of employment, or disease and health incapacitation, including pregnancy.

In carrying forward these progressive global ideas to protect the child, the government looks in an expansive manner at children in and out of school to include any education, learning, arts, hobby or sports institution that a child may go to in the process of development. In fact, the famous, or rather infamous "skin to skin" judgement was with reference to misdeeds of a private tuition teacher. Implicit in the law is the double protection the child enjoys - from the parents and from the institutions attended, both of whom are mandated to protect the child and prioritize the child's well being above all. In many a case the parent has also been arrested under this act for not safeguarding the interest of the child. Thus, parents and all institutions that deal with children must be aware of the POCSO Law and commit themselves to the child protection policy implicit in it in letter, word and spirit.

Child sexual abuse is a broad term and includes not just physical touch but any action by the offender towards the child, done with a sexual intent. This includes stalking, chatting in person, on the phone or online using suggestive words or language laden with sexual innuendoes, showing porn to the child, using the child to make pornographic material, making lewd gestures, flashing and baring before the child etc. You can see that many of these descriptions have noting to do with the earlier description of sexual offences and rape which was about touch and penetration.

If a child, under the age of 18 makes any complaint about such an issue, the action is swift and the onus is on the alleged perpetrator to prove his innocence. It is important to understand how serious the law is on this matter. It is so serious and non-negotiable that even if it is a child against whom such complaints are made, then too the offence would attract swift action and penalty, except that it would be according to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.

Unfortunately, Child sexual abuse is a very secret crime. More often than not the child is unable to muster up the confidence or even the vocabulary to speak up. The reluctance in society to discuss matters related to sex and sexuality contributes in a big way. Childhood is a build up and preparation for the eventual challenges of adulthood. But by reinforcing preconceived perceptions, the child is brought up bereft of agency, in a culture that is patriarchal, and values the adult over the child.

Sexual taboos accompanied by victim blaming and a misplaced sense of honour is the reason why most victims of sexual abuse and certainly all victims of child sexual abuse are hesitant to speak up. Victim blaming is so toxic that the lines between victims and offenders get blurred, rather they are deliberately blurred. Are those who facilitate such blurring, complicit in the circle of silence that helps the persistence of sexual abuse? The stigma, the moral judgements, character assassination, hurts to dignity, injuries to self-respect, the imposition of restrictions, the denial of opportunities, all come together to make the life, dreams and liberty of the child a plaything in the hands of controlling adults.

Abusers are almost always known to the child and trusted by the child. Thus, the act of abuse is doubly destructive. Poor and needy children are more vulnerable as the abuser may pretend to help them, and may actually be doing it, till an opportunity presents itself to take advantage, which is done, confident in the belief that the young person of restricted resources and possibly dysfunctional family dynamics, may rein in the victim, preventing protestation.

In the case I heard about, and want to share with you via this column, I have taken care to keep identities hidden. This is another very important element of the POCSO Law. The identity of the child must never be revealed. In this case I am also not revealing anything else, the city in which it happened, the style danced, the name of the offender or the enabler. The purpose is not to name and shame. The purpose is to learn from this mistake, and learn fast, so that nothing like this happens under our watch.

A young gifted woman dancer, about 17 years of age, recipient of a stipend from the dance school she was part of rose fast in prominence because of her prodigious talent. She was soon dancing with the seniors in the dance school, all professional dancers. Unwanted attention form one male dancer was unwelcomed. In different ways she tried to convey her discomfort, but in a patriarchal society where the males come with privilege, and a strong sense of entitlement, the boy dismissed her protests and persisted. The big show was almost upon them and the rehearsals continued. As did the undesired attention.

And then one day the girl spoke up. Retaliation was swift, she was asked to take a break, denied the stipend and eventually hounded out of the dance school. Her mother was called and made to sign a letter supporting the decision of the management of the dance school. In one moment, she threw her daughter's dreams and aspirations under the bus. At home a strict regimen of restrictions was imposed that prevented her from dancing or staying in touch with the other dancers. I really wonder if this prodigiously talented dancer even wanted to speak to the other dancers, who had rapidly stepped into her role.

For the management the girl, despite the shine was now inconvenient. It was aware that she was a minor, and since minors cannot sign contracts or serious letters that may have a legal life later, her mother was made to sign the letter. But while knowing that the dancer was underage, the management seemed oblivious to the POCSO Act, which mandates by law the compulsory reporting of such cases of abuse.

In a manipulative manner, one step at a time, first both the perpetrator and dancer were asked to go on leave. Then the girl was removed from the dance school and the dance company. Then she was informed that her stipend will not be continued. She has gone into oblivion, a lost talent. Talent apart, the way things played out she probably believes that she is being blamed. The next step could well be wondering if it was all her fault. And what is the message being given to the others still remaining at the dance school?

With dreams and trust shattered both at home and in the dance school, she entered her eighteenth year. Possibly the management has heaved a sigh of relief and the mother is now looking at getting her off her hands through marriage, but apart from the guilt that should bother them, at least in sentient moments, it is important to point out that the law permits her to speak up at any time and appeal to the criminal justice system. For that there is no time bar.

The perpetrator, who incidentally teaches at a school with hundreds of children as students, has returned to claim his position as principal dancer. His absence is being passed off as a misunderstanding. His return is being justified as right since there is nothing against him. There is nothing against him because there was no investigation. And no investigation got done because the case was not reported under POCSO, with lack of awareness about POCSO being cited casually as the reason why it happened so. Despite it being a large dance school, with more than nine people on its rolls, there were no Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) systems in place.

Give yourself a minute to think about this and even if you did not know about POCSO Laws and POSH compliances when you started reading this, I hope now you have some idea. I would urge you to go to to find out more about these key Acts of the law of the land. A critical analysis of the events suggests a deliberate avoidance of the matrix of facts and an enabling role played by the management that valued the adult over the child, and behaved irresponsibly towards the young dancer and her talent. You may use privilege, legal legerdemain, and social equity to construct a convenient story, but at its core, this story remains one of a human rights abuse.

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice through her NGO, Kri Foundation (estd. 2003), and has extended her academic work to Indian dance in the diaspora. She is a Co-Founder,

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