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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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As a result, in most states there is a lack of funding for child welfare committees that were designed to oversee the care of vulnerable children. While the number of committees has increased, fewer than half of India’s 629 districts have appointed one. The ability of those committees to effectively work with children is questionable. Most people have not received training in India’s juvenile justice or child protection systems.

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Concerns about the way forward

A lack of resources and weak political will have made it difficult for India to implement past legislation for protecting children. Little has been done to enforce a 2001 law requiring that police stations assign an officer to work specifically with children, says Raj Prasad, who runs one of the nation’s few victim crisis centers in a Delhi police station. “Citizens, especially children, are not aware of their rights.”

There are also worries that the new law on child abuse may actually discourage victims from speaking up. A provision on “mandatory reporting” that holds people responsible for not reporting a known case of abuse could lead families, teachers, or doctors to ignore any suspicions for fear of being forced to go to the police, some activists say.

The head of Delhi’s juvenile police unit disagrees and says “mandatory reporting” is exactly what’s needed to hold police, family members, and medical workers accountable.

“If an officer comes to know of a case of child abuse and does not write a report, criminal action can be initiated,” says Suman Nalwa, noting past incidents in which officials have kept cases hidden because they did not want to spoil anyone’s reputation. “Mandatory reporting puts pressure on them not to hide these things.”

Social stigma

But Nalwa says that even if people follow the new law and enforce it, a law can’t break the social stigma ingrained in Indian society. “It’s almost unheard-of for a wealthy, well-heeled family to come forward. Abuse happens there, too, but they just feel they have too much to lose.” She says families living in more difficult socioeconomic conditions are more likely to report the crime.

India’s commission for the protection of child rights is relying on the law to lead more people to report cases in hopes that that will force the system to develop ways to handle them. Officials within law enforcement, hospitals, or the judiciary will learn more about the national problem as they are forced to act, says the commission’s chairwoman, Shanta Sinha.

“We have been getting so many complaints on the brutality [inflicted on] children,” she says, remembering one 2008 case of a 2-year-old from northeast Jharkand state who was so badly abused she needed medical treatment until she was 6. The child’s legal case languished for years, eventually being settled outside the courts.

“These kinds of cases happen all the time,” Ms. Sinha says. “Hopefully with the new law, cases will be prosecuted more strongly and this will stop happening.”

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