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Child sex abuse in India: We have let down our children

Apr 27, 2013

Highlighting inaction against the perpetrators, Human Rights Watch maintains that child sexual abuse in homes, schools and child welfare institutions is quite common in India.

Delhi and Lucknow:  The case of a five year old girl, who was brutalised in an unspeakable manner and left for dead, brought angry crowds out on the streets of Delhi yet again. It trained the spotlight on an issue that rarely figures in public discourse, that of child sexual abuse. It was only in May 2012, that Parliament enacted India’s first law that specifically outlawed child sexual abuse, although it has long been a part of the Indian reality and awareness about it continues to be abysmal.

The Human Rights Watch report, released earlier this year, only underlines this horrific reality. Entitled ‘Breaking the Silence - Child Sexual Abuse in India’, it presents a dismal picture of child protection in the country, particularly when it came to preventing sexual abuse of minors, a phenomenon that cut across classes.

Highlighting inaction against the perpetrators, Human Rights Watch maintains that child sexual abuse in homes, schools and child welfare institutions is quite common in India. It points out that a government-appointed committee in January 2013 had itself stated that the government’s child protection schemes “have clearly failed”.

According to Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF Representative to India, it is alarming that in too many cases of sexual abuse, the victims were children. “One in three rape victims is a child. More than 7,200 children including infants are raped every year; experts believe that many more cases go unreported. Given the stigma attached to rape, especially when it comes to children, this is most likely only the tip of the iceberg,” he states.

The Human Rights Watch study, incidentally, is not the only one of its kind. In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development had sponsored a survey, ‘National Study on Child Abuse: India 2007’. Its findings, based on interviews with 12,500 children in 13 states, reflected serious and widespread sexual abuse. The really disturbing aspect that emerged in that survey was that 72 per cent of the victims did not report the matter to anyone. Only 3 per cent of the victims’ families complained to the police or made the abuse public.

Prior to this 2007 study, an India NGO, ‘Recovery and Healing from Incest’ (RAHI) had conducted India’s first study of child sexual abuse in 1998. For this 600 English-speaking, middle and upper class women had been interviewed - 76 per cent of them said that they had been abused in their childhood or adolescence.  Shockingly, 40 per cent of these cases involved family members.

What is distressing is that despite the wealth of data, the government and related agencies have done little to address the problem. Explains Menakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, “While great awareness has been raised about sexual violence against women in India, much less is known about child sexual abuse. Those children that have the courage to speak up against the sexual abuse they face, the police, medical experts and even their families refuse to take cognisance of it. The children are admonished for making the allegations and reprimanded by authority figures as well.”

For the latest study, interviews with 100 people, including independent and government child protection experts and officials, police officials, doctors, social workers and lawyers, were conducted from April and June 2012. Eight victims of child sexual abuse – one of whom is male – as well as the relatives of another nine victims have also been interviewed.

The Human Rights Watch study investigates cases of child sexual abuse within child welfare institutions, both private and state-run. Residential care facilities such as Apna Ghar and Drone Foundation in Haryana, where children were abused by the people running the home have been studied. In Shiv Kuti Shishu Grih, a government residential facility for girls in Allahabad, one of Uttar Pradesh’s larger cities, girls between the ages of 6-12 years suffered sexual abuse at the hands of an employee for over 15 years. His crime was discovered only by chance. Also included are cases from homes in New Delhi, Karnataka, West Bengal, Goa, Haryana and other regions in Uttar Pradesh, where members of the staff, older children and visitors - including police officers – have been the assaulters.

While addressing child sexual abuse can be a problem anywhere in the world, according to Human Rights Watch report, India’s many shortcomings both at the state and community levels, make it even more of a challenge. Narrates Ahmed (name changed), the father of a 12-year-old girl who was gang raped, “The attack on her took place after three men abducted her as she was walking back to our home in Varanasi. We decided to inform the police after seeing her condition and also because so many school girls use the same street and we were afraid for their safety. But instead of supporting me, my neighbours shunned me. The family of my elder daughter’s fiancé cancelled the engagement as they felt it would bring shame to their family.” That’s not all. Ahmed also had to face the ire of the enforcement agencies.

Today, this father’s words gain new relevance given the public outrage over police apathy in the recent Delhi incident, “The police discouraged me from registering the complaint. My daughter kept saying she was raped, but the police told us not to tell anyone about this and settle the case. When I refused, he grabbed me and slapped me several times. They also beat up my son.”

Similar insensitivity on the part of the police emerges in the statement of another 12-year-old victim quoted in the report. Krishna (name changed) revealed that she had been raped by a member of a politically influential family. When she complained to the police, instead of taking action against the perpetrator, they detained her at the police station for over 12 days. Recalls Krishna, “The police kept insisting that I change my statement otherwise they threatened that something would happen to me.”

The medical fraternity too has often behaved atrociously insensitive in such cases. Reveals Krishna, who went through the traumatic experience of having to undergo a medical examination after the rape, “The doctor asked me to lie down on a table and remove my clothes. When she examined me she inserted her finger inside me. It hurt and I was scared. I did not like what the doctor was doing to me. She then said, ‘Oh, it was just a small rape, it’s no big deal’.”

According to Ganguly, “The finger test has been banned by the High Courts in most states, and even forensic experts maintain that this test has no scientific basis. Yet, it is constantly being used. The doctors and medical experts examining an abused child maintained when interviewed by us that in the absence of any training and guidelines on how to carry out such examinations, they have to use existing procedures which are extremely traumatic for a child.”

Says Dr Shaibya Saldanha, a gynaecologist who works with child sexual abuse survivors in Bengaluru, “Most doctors don’t have the skills to perform such an important role. Unfortunately, no doctor, whether a general practitioner, a gynaecologist or a paediatrician has been trained in examining an abused child. They have no idea about rehabilitation procedures or the medical and psychological needs of the child.”

The country has paid a high price for its silence on an issue involving its most vulnerable citizens. The Delhi atrocity has come as yet another grating wake-up call. Will the much needed corrective steps be taken this time? That is a question we need to answer as a society.

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