SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG

Is This German Scouting Ritual Child Abuse?

Though the country's major scouting associations say the practice of "Pflocken," in which children are tied down, isn't acceptable, the timeworn practice continues.

German boy scout undergoing "Pflocken"
German boy scout undergoing "Pflocken"
Markus C. Schulte von Drach

MUNICH — It's spring 2014 at a boy scout camp in southern Germany. Younger boys and adolescents are cavorting about, practicing, learning and generally having fun. Then word spreads that a boy named Mark is about to be targeted for "Pflocken," so the boys gather to watch what's about to happen. Mark, who's about 11, has done something wrong, "something bad," and he's going to be punished.

Group leaders set him down on a table and bind his arms and legs, which are spread out. Gummy snake candy is then stuffed into his mouth. "Almost everybody thought it was funny," say some of the kids who were there. But some boys didn't find it funny at all. They may have worried they would face similar treatment one day.

The practice of so-called "Pflocken" usually happens outdoors. Online descriptions and photos confirm that. Four tent pegs are hammered into the ground, and the boy is tied to them with rope. The bound child doesn't know what awaits him, so uncertainty and fear are part of the equation. He's then tickled, body-marked with felt-tip pens and sometimes doused with water. There are stories on the Internet of kids being smeared with honey or leftover food.

How often this goes on is unclear. The Cologne-based Zartbitter association, whose mission is to protect boys and girls from abuse, reported in 2011 that groups used Pflocken either as punishment or as part of an induction ritual.

Can this really be? Do parents have any idea that their children will be tied down when they join the scouts?

The three largest scout associations in Germany tell us that the practice is very well-known. In fact, according to Kerstin Fuchs, federal chair of the Catholic Saint George German Scout Association (DPSG), it used to be a timeworn tradition. But the associations all express surprise that the ritual is still happening.

"We haven't heard anything about that for a long time," says DPSG spokesman Daniel Seiler. "We were assuming it didn't happen anymore."

Put an end to a cruel ordeal

Officials for the Union of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and the Association of Christian Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts also say they were unaware of recent cases. All three associations say the practice contradicts their educational principles.

The practice fulfills the criteria for the deprivation of liberty and is a violent offense, says scout official Carolin Harms. The associations reject anything "that disregards or hurts the bodily and spiritual well-being of members," she says.

Another official, Diane Tempel-Bornett, is equally adamant. "For the person who has to go through it, it's a massive humiliation," she says.

Beyond that, experts say there are dangers of lasting damage. "If it really takes place the way it's described by eyewitnesses, then it matches all the main characteristics of child abuse, more specifically abuse of wards," says Klaus Neumann, the officer in charge of the well-being and rights of children at the Professional Association of German Psychologists.

Harms says that group leaders who allowed Pflocken would have to count on losing their position and probably also their scout memberships.

"For many years, we've been making efforts to shine the light on every kind of violence aimed at children," says Seiler, who is also expressing surprise that the practice continues. "Violence and violation of borders have for many years been subjects that are dealt with in the education the leaders receive." That applies to all three associations.

Some may not perceive Pflocken as violence, and one of the scouts who witnessed Mark being tied down last spring says Mark wasn't traumatized. "He just laughed," his peer says.

But the associations believe that's far from proof that the ritual is harmless. "One of the goals of the training we give leaders is understanding just how far they can go," says Seiler. "That also applies to rituals that on the surface are just supposed to be fun." Even when those being tied down appear to be participating voluntarily, that can be a false representation. In any case, things should never go that far. "There are individual borders, and crossing them constitutes a violation of privacy," Seiler says. "Leaders have to be able to recognize the borders and not cross them."

Which is why group leaders during training are sensitized to what can seem harmless to some emotionally traumatic for others, says Tempel-Bornett. "Some kids find spin the bottle fun, but for others it's torture. Nobody should have to participate in any activity they don't like."

But why do rituals such as this one still exist if there's all this commitment to end abuse? "As a federal association, we are responsible for training leaders, but we aren't present at the numerous local activities," Seiler says. "That's why I hope that both girl scouts and boy scouts in the groups concerned will deal with what they've experienced by giving it serious reflection."

The troops are also regularly sent information and guidelines about avoiding violence. "We are proactive as far as violence is concerned," Seiler says. "Pflocken simply should not happen."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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