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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.

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A 2007 government study that interviewed more than 12,000 children across 13 Indian states found more than half had experienced some form of sexual abuse, with the highest incidences recorded in northern Delhi, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and the northeast state of Assam.

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If the findings are extrapolated across India’s 1.2 billion population, the number of potential abuse cases could be immense given that a majority of the population is under 25 (India is home to 20 percent of the world’s children.). (Read more about India's homeless railway children here)

The study – the first of its kind in a country only now awakening to a problem that spans all social classes – was conducted by the Ministry for Women and Children in 2005. In addition to interviewing thousands of children, it also surveyed more than 2,000 young adults and people who work closely with adolescents.

Efforts to publicize the problem, which has long been a taboo subject, have been helped by popular Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, who featured a segment on child abuse on his summertime talk show, marking a huge change in public willingness to address the issue. It was watched by tens of millions of Indians.

The new law also has many hoping more people will report abuse, though some say it does little to address public apathy or assuage distrust of a judicial system in which corruption has often trumped justice.

“Perpetrators believe they can keep getting away with their deplorable behavior,” says Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch in South Asia.

The organization recently conducted an extensive study on child abuse in India, which found that despite the new legislation there are very few counseling centers, trained teachers in schools, knowledgeable police officers, or medical experts in place to protect the country’s children. 

Activists say most of the services available for children in India are either run by individuals or nongovernmental organizations still in their nascent stages.

Ambitious government plans, launched in 2009, to strengthen child protection measures, and create new ones, such as a network of district-level social workers, have largely failed to get off the ground. (Read more about India's child coal miners)

Only four of India’s 28 states spent the money they were allocated by the central government during the first three years of the plan, according to the government’s own figures. 

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