Hidden Darkness: Child Sexual Abuse in India


After a brilliant 16-year-old New Delhi girl repeatedly complained last month that her mathematics teacher was “touching and fondling her private parts,” the upshot was a long way from what anybody bargained for. When the girl’s parents complained, the principal called them “regressive” and blamed them for damaging the school’s reputation. The girl now stays at home to help cook and clean, her school bag lying in a locked cupboard, her scholastic career over.

The story of the girl, referred to only as Seema, is depressingly familiar, resonating across large parts of India, where abuse is a a startling everyday reality for as many as half of the country’s children, according to a just-released 13-state National Study on Child Sexual Abuse conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, UNICEF and Save The Children.

It is a long-hidden issue that India is finally beginning to wrestle with. The government moved recently to establish a National Commission for Protection of Children's Rights and plans are afoot to present an Offences Against Children (Prevention) Bill in the Parliament. The proposed document has specific sections dealing with various crimes against children, including sale/transfer, sexual assault, sexual/physical/emotional abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, child pornography, grooming for sexual purpose, incest, corporal punishment, bullying and economic exploitation.

The scale of abuse, according to the national study, is far worse than anybody had thought. It reports that 69 per cent of all Indian children are victims of physical, mental or emotional abuse, with New Delhi’s children facing an astounding abuse rate of 83.12 percent.

The survey, which involved interviews with 12,447 children, also highlights that it is usually family members (89 percent) who perpetrate such crimes and that more boys face physical abuse (72.61) than girls (65 per cent). Overall, Indian children were found to be victims of a slew of sexual crimes -- rape, sodomy, exposure to pornographic material, fondling, forcible kissing and sexual advances, among others.

The study also notes that child sexual abuse in India begins as early as five, ratchets up dramatically during pre-pubescence and peaks at 12 to 16 years. Some 21 percent of respondents acknowledged experiencing severe sexual abuse like rape, sodomy, fondling or exposure to pornographic material. Ironically, 71 per cent of sexual assault cases in India go unreported.

Nor is the study an aberration. As long ago as the mid 1990s, Samvada, a non-governmental organization in Karnataka, surveyed girls aged 15 to 21 from 11 schools and reported that 47 percent of the respondents were molested or experienced sexual overtures, 15 percent of them under the age of 10. Another 15 percent said they had experienced serious forms of sexual abuse including rape – 31 percent of that group were under the age of 10 when the abuses took place.

India is home to more than 375 million children, comprising nearly 40 percent of the country’s population, the largest number of minors in any country in the world. Despite its ethos of non-violence, tolerance, spirituality and a new trillion-dollar economy, India hosts the world's largest number of sexually abused children, at a far higher rate than any other country. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every four girls and one in every seven boys in the world are sexually abused, hardly encouraging, but still far below India’s totals.

Worse, child abuse is one of the least documented violations in the country, records author Grace Poore in the book, The Children We Sacrifice, which deals with the wide prevalence of child sexual abuse in India.

The reasons are manifold. In India, much like the rest of Asia, children are expected to respect and obey authority figures such as teachers, guidance counselors and principals and not question their actions. Rebellion is perceived as a sign of a bad upbringing. This sensibility perpetuates a culture of abuse by encouraging sexual predators.

Also, Indian adults often exercise a near-feudal hold over their children, demanding complete and unquestioned obedience. A culture of silence and shame also swirls around cases of sexual violence against children. Unsurprisingly, the notion of shame is the single largest culprit in perpetuating sexual violence against India’s children.

Ironically, despite the magnitude of the problem, Indian courts offer little panacea to victims. In fact the only legal recourse available to such victims is the extensions of “rape laws”, which apply to women and are stretched to apply to children as well.

But, as authorities point out, rape laws only recognize sexual crimes involving “penile penetration” and are totally dependent on medical evidence. Such evidence is difficult to procure as abuse is usually not one isolated case but a whole series of them. It may even involve episodes in which the offender doesn’t even touch the victim. Worse, the sexual molestation law covers all sexual offences “that outrage the victim’s modesty,” other than penetration. However, these two are bailable offences and only demand punishment of a maximum of two years in jail and/or a fine of few thousand rupees.

Though this law can be used in child sexual abuse cases, its reference to “unusual sexual offences” makes it difficult for child victims to use this option as a legal remedy. Since the definition of sexual abuse is nebulous, victims are largely at the mercy of the court’s discretion. On rare cases when abusers are booked after a cumbersome legal procedure, India’s conviction rate is so abysmal (despite the country’s sophisticated and complex set of laws), it seems like a Pyrrhic victory.

Apart from the legal dimension, child sexual abuse also has pronouncedly psychological and emotional elements. Worldwide surveys point out that such abuse negatively impacts a child’s physical, emotional and mental well-being, leading to severe behavioral and psychiatric disorders. Suicidal tendencies and drug abuse are common long-term effects.

A World Health Organization survey also points out that there is an unambiguous behavioral and emotional pattern in the abused. Usually the child hardly talks about the incident. And, even if he or she does, no one takes it seriously. That in turn triggers feelings of self doubt and guilt, exacerbating the child’s feeling that it is his or her fault. As the child matures, compulsive behavior reinforces this guilt. Small wonder that many adult sexual problems, according to psychoanalysts, trace their provenance to childhood abuse.

Charol Shakeshaft, a statistics professor in the School of Education and Allied Human Services at Hofstra University, New York, notes in her report, “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” that “child sexual abusers, including educators and priests, use similar patterns of ‘grooming practices’ to break down a child's defenses. Often popular and well-regarded in their field, abusers engage in ‘systematic and premeditated grooming’ where they lavish special treatment on their intended victim buying presents or sharing secrets, for example and then advance to pornography.”

Where then, does the solution lie? Educating and enlightening kids about such issues, helping them distinguish between “good” and “bad” touch, is a partial answer, authorities say. Children also ought to be made aware of impulsive decisions they may make under pressure from peers, bullies and abusers. Sex education in schools is also productive. The Netherlands, a country where teenage pregnancy rates plummeted from 60 per cent to about 25 per cent through aggressive sex information campaigns in schools, is an example.

However, in India the issue of sexual abuse is still wedged between legal and policy commitments to children on the one hand, and the fallout of globalization on the other. A nationwide furor resulted after the government’s recent decision to introduce sex education in schools. The subject has divided opinion between camps who felt such a step would lead to unnecessary experimentation by curious teenagers and others who believed it would help whittle down cases of sexual abuse by creating widespread awareness.

In the meantime, with child sexual abuse attracting so much scrutiny and public debate, the government has the added impetus to adopt strong and unequivocal measures to contain such crimes. For a country with nearly 40 per cent of its populace comprised of children, such measures are overdue.