The rising number of reported sexual violence cases against children should worry all Bhutanese. What is more concerning is that we are not doing much about it either.
Several cases of child abuse were reported in the country in recent months. Save the Bjemina incident in Thimphu where the teacher had molested nine students, the other cases did not garner much attention. And when prosecuted, not all cases end in conviction. Cases are either dropped for want of evidence or the offences altered.
But what appear to have offended the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) more are the questions raised on the prosecution of sexual violence cases. In response to these concerns, the OAG recently stated that in the last four and half years, it received 44 cases of child molestation. Of the 38 cases charged, it stated 23 were convicted and patted itself in the back for the impressive conviction rate. But a closer look at the figures it shared show that 16 of the 23 convictions were as charged. The conviction of 23 is reached when those convicted after altering the charges are included.
The recent judgement by Phuentsholing court show that altering a child molestation case to sexual harassment reduces the offence to a petty misdemeanour from a fourth degree felony. The court may be impressed by its alternation and judgement. The people aren’t.
The OAG dropped six cases and the courts altered charges for seven. Against these 13 cases, the conviction of 16 cases is not impressive. But what may be reassuring to the people is that the OAG has relaxed its stringent evidentiary test requirement by relying on circumstantial evidences and victims’ statements.
Violence against children may be pervasive but it still remains underreported. When it does get reported, we falter in implementing the laws that are meant to protect children and bring the perpetrators to task. In 2016, the women, children and youth committee reported to the parliament that between 2012 and 2015 April, 149 rape cases were reported in the country. Of the 149 cases, 97 were minors. This means, at least two minors were raped every month during these years. Of the 65 sexual abuse cases reported to the forensic unit in Thimphu last year, 28 cases were among those below 18 years.
These cases show that having good laws is not enough for Bhutan to protect its children. Article 9, section 18 of the Constitution states that children must be protected against all forms of discrimination and exploitation. Neglecting them and their welfare impedes the progress of a society.
The national commission for women and children says that the country’s preventive and protection system is weak with many gaps and challenges. But the commission needs adequate financial and human resources support to do its job. It requires commitment and awareness from policy makers to the implementers and players at the community and household levels.
It is time we strengthened our protection system. It is time we acted or we risk this being the narrative of children in Bhutan.