In matters of sexual crime and criminals, where there is an understandable social revulsion towards the perpetrators, the law tends to be blunt and the public discourse vitiated by a collective desire for revenge. While paedophilia has been classified by the World Health Organisation as a disease, there are few mental health professionals in India equipped to deal with it. Over the last five years, though, that has been changing. As reported in this newspaper, over 300 people suspected of having paedophilic tendencies have reached out to a network of psychologists and psychiatrists based in Mumbai and Pune, seeking help.
There are, as there should be, severe legal consequences for those who sexually assault and target children under the POCSO Act. But doctors at the KEM Hospital Research Centre in Pune and the KEM hospital in Mumbai attempt to treat paedophilia through counseling and anti-depressants, especially those who are “at the lower threshold of the disease” and have not been booked under the Act. According to Klaus Beier, director of the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine in Berlin’s Charité University, at least 1 per cent of the male population suffers from paedophilia. Given India’s population, that’s too sizeable a number to leave unaddressed and untreated.
The initiative to open the door to those who want to deal with their paedophilic tendencies is welcome. Too often, the fear of the stigma that comes with articulating such feelings keeps them bottled up, leading to horrifying consequences. That a section of mental health professionals is taking a series of steps — from anonymous helplines to expanding the number of doctors capable of managing the disorder — to make a conversation possible is welcome. No society can leave the well-being of its children outside the ambit of the law, and once acts of sexual violence are committed, they must be prosecuted. But it is also important to deal with those who seek treatment, before the worst happens, with compassion and sympathy. It is important to treat the disease, not merely punish the diseased.