New law puts spotlight on India child abuse
Activists say cultural attitudes and red tape have allowed child abuse to run rife in India. But a new law seeks to change that by bringing abuse to light.
New Delhi, India
The abuse started when Jyoti was 9-years-old. Her sister's husband would take her on car rides promising ice cream. But the trips always ended with him fondling her, demanding kisses, and more. By the time she was 18, he was abusing her weekly and threatened to kidnap her if she told anyone.Skip to next paragraph
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She eventually told her parents, but, as she expected, they did nothing. Going to the police was unthinkable for a middle-class Indian family worried about public ridicule and preserving the honor of its women.
Then, years later, she saw bite marks on her 4-year-old daughter’s armpits, cheeks, and genitals. Jyoti learned her husband was molesting their child. This time, she says, “I did not keep quiet.”
But in trying to protect her daughter and press charges against her husband, Jyoti says, she found out how difficult it is in India to take action against child abuse. Police scoffed when she filed a complaint. Doctors warned that if she pursued legal action, her daughter risked social stigma that would prevent her from being able to find a husband.
“At every stage I was dissuaded,” Jyoti says in English from a New Delhi abuse shelter where she and her daughter go for counseling. She eventually got her case to a court after three years of effort. But “the first thing the judge told me was these things don’t happen in India. They only happen in America and Europe.”
Jyoti’s is a familiar story for hundreds of thousands of Indians, where there is little legal recourse, no child protection services, and a cultural tradition that prizes family loyalty above all – even if that means turning a blind eye to abuse within the home. Some parents also avoid reporting abuse for fear it will cause more trauma. And if a case does make it to court, children are often questioned with their alleged abuser in the room or subjected to invasive medical examinations.
Activists say those prevailing attitudes and red tape have allowed child abuse to run rife.
But a new law that went into effect in November seeks to change that by bringing abuse to light and perpetrators to justice. The key change involves shifting the burden of proof onto abusers and envisioning special courts to expedite cases of child abuse.
“Having a law is an indication that, as a society, we have accepted that child abuse is happening in our families, within our communities to children wherever they are in India,” says Anuja Gupta, head of the Delhi-based organization Recovering and Healing from Incest.
The “Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act” also makes it possible to prosecute for molestation in addition to rape. It’s the first law in the country that distinguishes between child and adult victims and sets harsh penalties – up to life in prison.