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I was a cute child, I guess. When I got to school my older cousin took me aside. He said some older boys would come after me—for sex. “That’s how it works," he said. “It’s dangerous for new boys." He told me I had to make sure I was never alone. He said, “Don’t go to the toilet alone. Don’t let a senior boy call you out alone." He told me what places to avoid.

“Because I had him and he was a senior, I was safe, nobody touched me. Others were not as lucky." V was sent to a posh boarding school at the age of 10 or 12. The possibility of being sexually assaulted there was, according to his recounting, so real that his older, seasoned cousin felt compelled to give him an informal orientation on how to not be sexually assaulted while at school. “That’s horrible" I said, visibly shocked. V shrugged, “It happens."

V and I were sitting outside a TV studio when he offered up this story. We were waiting to go on air to talk about the Juvenile Justice Act, and whether adolescent boys should be treated as adults for the offences they commit. In the two years since that particular debate has been sparked, I have had many opportunities to talk to different people about young boys and violence, as everyone, everywhere has been shocked by the violence perpetrated by the youngster convicted in the case we now call Nirbhaya. My conversation with V was one of them, unsolicited, surprising even, since we don’t really know each other very well.

Later, I repeated this conversation to D. He, also from a boarding school background, was not surprised. “When I was leaving for school, my father warned me about what could happen—he told me that there would be older boys who might want to do these things, he told me how to look after myself…" Later D talked, briefly, about his good friend who actually was sexually abused by senior boys. It was not something he dwelt on for too long.

These conversations swim about in my head. I ask around. It turns out many people who went to boarding school, particularly the all-boy ones, remember some older person giving them the warning safety talk. I think about my dear CV, assaulted in his school when he was just a child; I think about AK, who wrote in a magazine some years ago about the continuous sexual abuse he faced for years in his boarding school, and the damage that it did to him for a long time to come.

Both D and V say they would’ve sent their sons to their alma maters if it had been left to them. This actually stuns me. “Why would you put a kid through that?" I asked. “It toughens them up." “It’s not the only thing about the place." “It doesn’t happen to everyone." “You learn to protect yourself." “But why take the chance with your own kid?" I persisted. “Would you do that to your daughter?"

I can’t make sense of it at all. How is it possible that young boys from privileged, influential, aware families are routinely sent off to boarding schools where the likelihood of being sexually abused or assaulted is high enough that the older men in their families think they should warn these young boys about it? One would think that if you have first-hand knowledge of the sexual abuse that happens quite often in these schools, you would actively prevent your child from having to undergo or bear witness to such traumatic experiences. Or that you would ensure that the school has a clearly stated policy for protecting the children entrusted to their care from sexual abuse.

Often while trying to be tough, men learn to forget or discount that they or their friends were abused
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Often while trying to be tough, men learn to forget or discount that they or their friends were abused

I think about the messages that the young V and D learnt about violence and coercion while at school. And about how they normalized it. The lesson they learnt bears enumerating: Sexual abuse is something that happens to some people, and while you should make sure it doesn’t happen to you, it’s clearly not a big enough deal for anyone to do anything about it. It is a rite of passage, and when you became big it will stop, and eventually the scars will fade. An education that teaches children to normalize violation of themselves and of their friends, that inducts children into the culture of silence to which their families and schools are sworn to, is a grotesque one and should be recognized as such. Who decided and when that this is what being a boy means? This is not what boyhood should feel like.

This is not a diatribe about violence in boys’ boarding schools. Rather, it is a call to recognize that boys pay a heavy cost when we choose to perpetuate ideas of masculinity that refuse to recognize these children’s vulnerability to violence and exploitation.

Fourteen-year-old A from a Mumbai basti told my colleague S that being perceived as weak is the worst, most dangerous thing that can happen because then people will rip you to shreds. He talked about R—a new boy in their group, a weak boy. R was declared weak when everyone saw him being taken to the toilets and raped by L—a man all the boys knew was a predator, and dangerous. Once word spread about R, he became an easy target. No complaint, no fuss, no police investigation. Just A and his group, who now take R out regularly to an open space where they beat the daylights out of him. They want to toughen him up, they threaten him with the prospect of being handed back to L if he so much as whimpers. This, according to A, is how he will learn. “It’s how we all learn," he adds.

Research tells us that in India young boys are victims of sexual abuse in large numbers. The Union government’s 2007 study on child abuse reports that a shocking 53.2% of children say they have experienced one or more form of sexual abuse. Of this number, 52.9% are boys. Boys of all ages and sizes, of all backgrounds, across locations and states, report that they have experienced sexual abuse.

The study goes on to report: “The age wise distribution of children reporting sexual abuse in one or more forms showed that though the abuse started at the age of 5 years, it gained momentum 10 years onward, peaking at 12 to 15 years and then starting to decline. This means that children in the teenage years are most vulnerable. The study looked at gender-wise break-up of children who were subjected to one or more forms of sexual abuse in the sample states. The significant finding was that contrary to the general perception, the overall percentage of boys was much higher than that of girls. In fact 9 out of 13 states reported higher percentage of sexual abuse among boys as compared to girls, with states like Delhi reporting a figure of 65.64%."

Despite the fact that sexual abuse among boys is so rampant, we have failed to give them the vocabulary to identify and talk about it. This lack of acknowledgment has dreadful implications. When M, a counsellor in my organization, was working with a 12-year-old boy, a resident of a well-known orphanage accused of raping a younger female inhabitant, she told me: “He is confused about what is going on. It’s not that he doesn’t know that what he did is wrong, but he can’t wrap his head around why he is in so much trouble. According to him, this happened to him too, it happens to many of the kids, and he keeps saying—‘but no one said anything then’. Although everyone knew about it."

When talking to a group of women, residents of a basti in Reay Road in Mumbai, who volunteer with our community child protection programme, I asked them what they thought made boys vulnerable or at risk of being harmed. One woman candidly said: “I can’t think about it. I have to send my son to work every day—we depend on him; if I have to think of him as a child, I will not manage." The women all considered my question for a while, then admitted that they had never actually thought of boys as being vulnerable. “They are out and about from a young age, and we stop supervising them. Once they are earning, we really don’t control their movements at all. I rarely ask my son what he has been up to, who he roams with, as long as he goes to work; even his father says nothing."

Not surprisingly then, the largest percentage of children—61.6%—who reported being sexually abused were working children: children who worked in shops, factories and other establishments. The government’s highly conservative estimates tell us that there are 4.5 million children under the age of 14 who are out there and at work. Of which, the majority are boys.

There is an odd and dangerous inability to see boys as children first. In a recent public service announcement—Boys Don’t Cry—part of Vogue magazine’s social initiative to focus attention on violence against women and to create a movement for women’s empowerment, this is painfully apparent. The campaign, Vogue Empower, is supported by some of the country’s biggest names from the worlds of fashion and entertainment—industries historically not best known for the most appropriate and empowering representation of women (or men for that matter)—but I am not one to think that the leopard cannot change its spots. In fact, I am a great fan of the idea of the spot-changing leopard. Besides, everyone can and should engage with the serious issue of violence.

The short film is a series of vignettes of young boys crying, while someone exhorts them to stop, to not be a girl, because, you got it, “boys don’t cry". At the end, a man with moist eyes that do not shed tears breaks a woman’s arm, in a scene depicting partner/domestic violence. Actor Madhuri Dixit-Nene then comes on and says: “We have taught our boys not to cry. It’s time we teach them not to make girls cry."

While I entirely agree that we need to teach our children not to be violent, I am disturbed that Vogue has no way of acknowledging the crying of male infants and toddlers, apart from condemning them for violating the gender code. To me, the film first and foremost says to the boy-child that crying is not a gender–appropriate expression of his feelings when he is hurt because that is what girls do. Denigrating in one fell swoop both his emotions, as well as girls, as a category of weak people who are allowed to cry when hurt. Then it goes on to make the young boy at least partly responsible for why girls/women cry out in pain.

As a nation we are bewildered by the social order we have created. We hate the violence and disrespect we have perpetuated. We really do want women to be safe. So we allow ourselves to buy into messaging that pits women against children—boys specifically—because that is so much less complicated than focusing on social norms that condone marital rape, or the police who are simultaneously apathetic and violent with impunity, or the power structures that ensure the subordination of the weak, the voiceless, the unprivileged—which includes children, even boys.

What if Dixit-Nene had been asked to use her considerable influence to tell adult India that when a child cries—whether it’s a boy or a girl—listen, respond, comfort, and protect? What if instead she had said: Tell your child that everyone has a right to be safe, and to be heard, and to get justice, be they boy, girl, man or woman?

Atiya Bose is director of policy and advocacy at Aangan, a child protection organization.

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