Social workers fear figures are more, as many do not report 

The recent case of a 12-year-old girl giving birth in Samdrupjongkhar not only shocked the nation but also raised many questions on how society fails to protect girls.

Parents and teachers of the girl claimed they did not know about the pregnancy. The alleged rapist is a 35-year-old neighbour.

Officials from RENEW, a non-profit organisation dedicated to empower women and children, said the protection system for children, be it at home, school or public places, is weak.

Records show that there are more than 237 cases of teenage pregnancy in 2020 alone in 18 dzongkhags. Figures could not be obtained from Haa and Tsirang. The highest case was recorded in Thimphu with 55 cases, followed by 30 in Chukha and 20 in Trashigang.

Social workers said figures could be more, as many do not report.

Past media reports stated that records with police showed eight reported cases of teenage pregnancy in 2020, 33 cases of rape of child above 12 years, and five cases of rape of a child below 12 years. It was also reported that the Office of the Attorney General received 37 cases of rape of children above 12 years last year.

Officials from the health ministry’s reproductive, maternal and neonatal health programme, which was supposed to compile the list of teenage pregnancies, did not share their data. An official said they are yet to validate the data for 2020.

Sources said negligence from parents and caregivers have resulted in most reported teenage pregnancies, as most know about the children’s condition only in advanced pregnancies. “Some parents and caregivers also try to cover children’s pregnancy fearing stigmatisation and neighbours judging them,” a source said.

A social worker explained that only proactive and dedicated health officials and teachers take sexual assaults and child abuse cases seriously. “Children confide about the cases to school counsellors, who then report the matter to the head of the school.”

She said that while some teachers, who are committed to protecting the children, take the matter seriously and report the cases to the police, most resolve it mutually, reasoning the school’s reputation and image. “This is totally against the law and no one has the authority to resolve the cases mutually but it is happening rampantly.”

There are cases where minors, who are allegedly raped by their caregivers or family members, have confided about it to school counsellors but principals have mutually resolved the case. “There is no accountability.”

An official from RENEW explained that when a child goes to the hospital after sexual assault, health officials fear that reporting such matters to police would discourage children from availing of health services. “Even though the case is criminal, most health officials do not report it. We are grateful to those who do.”

The official said teenage pregnancy cases increased during the lockdowns, as there was movement restriction and victims have to stay with perpetrators.

It was learnt that Trashiyangtse dzongkhag referred eight minor girls, who are victims of sexual abuse in 2020 to RENEW for safe shelter, protection and counselling.

Teenage pregnancy and sexual assaults against children are graded as a felony as per the Penal Code of Bhutan. There are also numerous Acts, policies and guidelines to protect and safeguard children.

There are, however, gaps in the national gender-based violence standard operating procedure (SOP), which mandates service providers to report all forms of gender-based violence against children. It states teenage pregnancy should not automatically be considered an indicator of violence and thus grounds for mandatory reporting.

A source said that sexual cases with minors under 18 years are considered rape according to the Penal Code and the SOP states it is not mandatory to report teenage pregnancy. “Such conflicting provisions could cause confusion. The Penal Code is clear and people not reporting such cases should be charged for failing to report the crime.”

RENEW officials said that besides implementing policies, guidelines and Acts of child protection seriously, there is a need to create awareness and advocacies at all levels.

“We also have to educate and develop skills of those working with children,” an official said.

She said that RENEW had initiated ‘good touch and bad touch’ awareness programmes, an animation series called ‘Yeshey Dawa’ to advocate the rights of women and children, and an animated child sexual abuse awareness video called ‘Acho Khegpa’.

RENEW officials also said it is high time organisations should come together and strategise how to strengthen the implementation of plans, policies and Acts.

“All institutions have their own challenges and we should thrash out the problems and upscale advocacy and awareness,” an official said. “We have to strengthen the network.”

A social worker said, “It is time we do more to protect our girls than just conduct meetings. We have to implement the grand plans and policies than talk about them.”

She also said that taking the judiciary on board was important. “All the hard work of police, social workers and prosecutors go down the drain when our judges do not see the gravity of the cases.”

She said that if teenage pregnancy case should be taken seriously, everyone, including parents, health officials, teachers, police, OAG, judiciary and the media should come on board and not just social workers.

Meanwhile, police in Samdrupjongkhar registered the case against the 35-year-old man for statutory rape on May 26.

Sources said the child should be given counselling.

By Tashi Dema