Besides being known as a retirement town and a commercial hub, Gelephu is lately refereed to as a place where elephants and sexual perpetrators run amok.
The drungkhag reported the highest number of child sexual abuse cases last year. Of the 35 cases reported to RENEW between January and November last year, 17 were in Gelephu. Early last week, when the drungkhag court sentenced a teacher for molesting six students, the court changed the charges of attempt to rape to molestation. The court reasoned that the teacher has only tried to strip the victim and that there was nothing cruel and forceful attempt to rape.
We have become increasingly tolerant to sexual abuse cases against children. An assessment by the national commission for women and children had found discrepancies in legal actions taken against such cases and that they were also not strong to deter such actions. The recent judgment and earlier reports of the attorney general’s office dropping molestation cases all indicate our apathy towards sexual exploitation of children.
These reports have come at a time when public confidence in the judiciary has slumped; when it has started to increasingly involve teachers and when the state prosecutor drops molestation cases for want of evidence. Following the Bjemina case, the former minister had announced that all teachers would be given a crash course on counselling so that they are able to help students speak up on such abuses. The course never happened nor was there any budget allocated it was learnt later. We now realise that the actions that ensued on the Bjemina case was not so much driven by the cases and a will to deter child abuse as it was by other factors.
And then the country moved on with the elections and the commitments of the former minister and the issue of child abuse remains forgotten.
We often blame transition and budget for inaction, even when the issue concerns our children. It becomes a non-issue when the abused child hails from poor families. So what we are seeing today is the consequence of our complacency and inaction to deter and prevent any form of violence against children. Weak implementation of strong laws and weaker conviction rate continues to embolden perpetrators to abuse our children. We are as confronted with violence against children as the lack of a collective response to address these issues.
In the recent case, both parties have appealed against the drungkhag court’s judgement and the OAG has called for exemplary punishment against those who sexually exploit children.
Bhutan has laws, institutions and the political will to ensure that our women and children are safe and protected. This case like many others would test our courts’ and the nation’s commitment to save our children and render justice.