Trying to filter the news feed amidst not only a pandemic, but also a lockdown has been challenging. After having read about the increase in number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, I’m exposed to headlines filled with the rise in different forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Reading about one such headline, i.e. #BoisLockerRoom and what followed was particularly distressing. Referring to this a friend and a fellow mental health professional said, “This is so disturbing and sadly not surprising at all.” Such news is unsurprising because it is not new, and it is also not one of a kind; it is simply that this news caught the limelight by social media.
Nearly two weeks ago, the internet was flooded with this hashtag. #BoisLockerRoom has exposed, yet again, a broken world that we are creating for our children. This was brought to notice when a Twitter user shared screenshots of private chats from an Instagram group, later identified as a group of boys from south Delhi. These screenshots not only contained morphed and obscene photographs of girls but also included lewd comments that objectified and sexualised them. What is sadly unsurprising is that most of the members of this private chat group as well as the females whose photographs were shared, are minors, i.e. individuals below the age of 18 years.
While the Boys Locker Room incident took social media by a storm, two more stories made headlines – one, a 17 year old boy committed suicide after having been accused of sexual assault by a girl on social media and the threats and harassment that followed; and two, a Snapchat conversation wherein a girl, using the fake identity of a male person messaged a boy suggesting a plan to sexually assault herself.
Reading these reminded me of another event which had happened in December 2019 wherein eight boys were suspended from a top ranked school in Mumbai for making violent and sexually explicit remarks including discussions about ‘gang bang’, ‘rape’, mocking homosexuality, and referring to girls as ‘trash’ in a WhatsApp group. It’s been half a year since then and we continue to see how these instances have snowballed.
All these headlines among many others which highlight not only the instances of sexual and otherwise aggressive behaviour of adolescents but also the impact it has on them, are not simply because of ‘bad company’, entitlement, westernization, or even mobile phones. These problematic behaviours and transgressions are a result of concerns deeply rooted in our society, in our daily conversations, in the media. Concerns that surround gender politics, ideas of masculinity, misunderstandings about feminism, normalization of rape culture, taboo around sexuality, homophobia, and so on. Children are simply mirroring these.
No child is born thinking women are to be objectified or that men must assert their manhood by aggression. No child is born knowing that boys or men are expected to always pick up the heavy bags or play sports and girls or women are expected to always appear ‘presentable’ or know how to cook. Young girls are criticized if they eat too much or too little or if they have dark skin. Young boys are told ‘man up’ when they cry, or when they do not fight back after being pushed around by others. Telling them to “be a man about it” or “not act like such a girl” are used as immensely powerful insults such that the guy on the receiving end might engage in things, he otherwise would not. Cultural perpetuation of ‘being a man’ or the ‘bro code’ has also distorted the young male population’s interpretation of women, sex, and appropriate behaviour. When sex is viewed as an achievement and women as objects to be conquered, the possibility of respecting a woman’s right over her body and her right to exercise consent narrows exponentially.
The cultural pressure of heterosexual masculinity on a man’s traits and orientation views any other expression that moves away from the norm to be feminine and socially unacceptable, thereby giving way to use of ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘stop acting like a pussy’ and in turn berating people who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In fact, gay guys are viewed as not ‘real men’. These beliefs and practices, embedded in our culture and our conversation, is learned and internalised by children, and unfortunately is what we see in the news headlines.
We have seen the Delhi Police cyber cell take suo moto cognizance of the Boys Locker Room incident and register them under various sections of the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act), and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Moreover, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 (POCSO Act) also recognizes sharing of images of minors with sexual intent, a crime. When a child is in conflict with law, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 comes into play. This Act is a reflection of restorative justice wherein the focus is less on punishment but more on taking accountability and rehabilitation.
While it is crucial that the judiciary looks into such matters, public shaming and issuing injunctions is not going to put an end to these instances. Suspending them from school, shaming them on social media, taking away their mobile phones, grounding them, and so on is not the only solution. Children, in their developmental age, are reactive by nature. It is scary to think of the number of ways in which they may react to this if not addressed appropriately.
The onus is on any and all adults who contribute to the development of children, especially those who care for them and are responsible for them, the families in which they live, the schools where they study, the teachers and other professionals who work with them. The POCSO Act, also recognizes the importance of the caregivers, families, teachers, and educational institutions in a child’s life by categorizing any sexual offence committed by them as aggravated.
Right now, when we are quarantined, and where social distancing is a norm, where children are learning online and where parents get to spend more time with them, we can begin equipping ourselves and initiate conversations with children around some of these issues. Children are extremely curious beings; if they don’t get to learn at home or in school about their bodies, their feelings, the changes they are going through, what is happening around them, they will learn about it on the internet and from their peers. Highlighting how media uses gender roles and sexuality to sell everything from toys to cars to clothes and even the food we eat can be a good start to discuss how the notions of masculinity and femininity are created and it’s impact. Equipping children with empathy can help them to deal with their peers respectfully, both offline and online. Asking them how the other person would feel, pointing out their actions and teaching to make amends can also instil accountability. We can initiate conversations around consent by asking children for their permission before showing physical affection. Teaching them to respect the power of the word ‘no’ and to encourage them to say no as well. As children are learning & developing, it is crucial that these discussions happen without any shame and blame. To be able to equip our children with the tools to navigate this world, we can begin by reflecting on ourselves and how our beliefs, words, and actions influence the children.
– Pankti Gohel, Associate, POSH at Work