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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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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