The State Government, after having all along refused to admit the existence of child abuse, leave alone boy child abuse, at Kovalam, has finally shrugged off its prudishness and taken on difficult truths head-on.
It is the image of a smiling boy that takes up most of the space of the anti-abuse posters that have been brought out by the Tourism Department on April 4. An open admission that boys, more than even girls, need protection.
Not even a year ago, Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had treated a question about child abuse at Kovalam like it was not serious at all. During a news conference, to announce the Kerala Travel Mart in Kochi, Expresso had asked the Minister about an Australian tourist who had managed to leave the country after abusing an 11-year-old boy. (The Australian was caught in the act by the Kovalam police.)
The Minister just smiled as though he had been asked a silly question. KTDC chairman Cheriyan Philip, who was there with the Minister, seemed even more amused. "Do such things happen at Kovalam?" he asked the media, as though the thought was unthinkable.
The reformed perspective, expressed through the anti-abuse posters, is based on the realisation that boys are the victims in most of the cases of child abuse reported from the coastal areas surrounding Kovalam.
The collaterals - posters, stickers, leaflets and bookmarks - were distributed among hotels, resorts, restaurants and shops at Kovalam. The creatives appeal to the conscience of both the tourist and the local. "Be a Guardian Angel", they say.
The message is simple and direct. Keep an eye open for the children of Kovalam, especially the boys. "If you suspect that a child is being abused, please call ChildLine 1098 or the police on 100," the collaterals say. The campaign is titled ‘Kovalam Vigil: Zero Tolerance on Child Abuse’.
"Kovalam Vigil was formed exclusively to prevent any kind of atrocity meted out to children. As part of this initiative, Kovalam has been declared a Zero Tolerance for Child Sex Abuse (CSA) - a first step towards proclaiming the entire State as CSA non-tolerant," the leaflet says.
A month after the Home Minister and the KTDC chairman ignored our question on child abuse, Expresso reported about four children who were being subjected to constant abuse by a Swiss foreigner. This case forced the authorities to drop their apathy. A series of remedial measures were undertaken.
The most important of these were a series of meetings conducted by the Social Welfare Department and Mahila Samakhya in various coastal panchayats.
"Panchayat members, school teachers, anganwadi staff and mothers had taken part in these meetings. Most of the women said little boys were highly vulnerable. Mothers keep their girls under constant vigil but boys are generally left unguarded. There is a misconception that boys will not be subjected to abuse," said Seema Bhaskar, Mahila Samkhya’s State project leader.
The collaterals have been designed by the Tourism Department with the support of Equations (a leading tourism NGO) and Mahila Samakhya Society.