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Child Sexual Abuse in India “Epidemic”

An Indian child poses with a sign as demonstrators participate in a protest in Allahabad following the rape of a five-year-old girl in New Delhi. A senior Indian government minister said that a new rape outrage showed that "something terrible" was happening to society as he extended an olive branch to demonstrators. Sanjay Kanojia / AFP - Getty Images

Sexual abuse of children in the country has assumed alarming proportions. The Delhi High Court termed it as an “epidemic”. Yet very little has been done over the years to tackle the problem. The Government and courts must ensure that such cases are swiftly dealt with

Indian students shout slogans as they hold placards demanding stringent punishment to rapists during a protest in New Delhi Saurabh Das / AP

The Delhi High Court recently termed child sexual abuse in India as an “epidemic”. Noting that child sexual abuse is one of the most pervasive social problems faced by our society, the court said its  impact is profound because of the sheer frequency with which it occurs and because of the trauma brought to the lives of the children who have experienced this crime.
“Children who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the sexual perpetrators do not only suffer from physical pain but are also subjected to mental and emotional trauma. The results of child sex abuse are severe and far reaching”, Justice P S Teji said.
The judge’s concerns are indeed legitimate, given the unfortunate truth that every day, eight children in India are subjected to sexual abuse. According to a 2007 study by the Union Government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, 53 per cent of children were victims of sexual abuse.
In fact, the rising trend of crime against children is also borne out by National Crime Records Bureau data that has recorded 33,052 cases, 38,172 cases and 58,224 cases during 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively.
In its widely debated 2013 report, ‘India’s Hell Holes: Child Sexual Assault in Juvenile Justice Homes’, the Asian Centre for Human Rights said that sexual offences against children in India have reached epidemic proportion.
The report stated that more than 48,000 child rape cases were recorded from 2001 to 2011 and that India saw an increase of 336 per cent of child rape cases from 2001 (2,113 cases) to 2011 (7,112 cases), making it one of the most unsafe countries for children in the world.
Child sexual abuse is rampant, indiscriminate and cuts across class, geography, culture and religion. It happens in cities and villages, by fathers, brothers, relatives, neighbours, teachers and strangers”, it lamented.
According to experts, many working parents are not even aware of sexual abuse of their child when they are kept in the accused’s custody to be taken care of. Parents don’t even report such cases when they come to know about it for fear of social stigma. In some cases, even fathers have been accused of sexual abuse of their children and mothers try to shield them instead of standing by the victims. In very few cases do mothers come out to report against their husband’s abuse.
What is more shameful is the low rate of convictions in such cases — pegged at 2.4 per cent of the total cases registered.
Ironically, the aforementioned ACHR report stated that an overwhelming majority of cases of child rape and sexual assault are taking place within the confines of juvenile justice homes set up under the law enacted for the protection of children in conflict with law.
Of the 39 emblematic cases of systematic and often repeated sexual assault on children in juvenile justice homes analysed from across the country by the ACHR, 11 were reported from juvenile justice homes run or aided by the Government. In every one of these cases, boys and girls have been raped, sodomised and sexually abused, apart from being forced to work and live in what the report terms “inhuman conditions”. In each one of the recorded cases, the abuser is someone working with the institution — a manager, a member of the staff etc. There was a case from Bangalore in which the offender was a member of the Child Welfare Committee.
While the Indian Penal Code treated rape as a serious offence, the law was deficient in recognising and punishing other sexual offences, such as sexual harassment, stalking, and child pornography, for which prosecutors had to rely on imprecise provisions such as “outraging the modesty of a woman”. Recognising the suffering of the child victims exacerbated by the lack of specific legislation to provide remedies for these crimes, in 2012, Parliament passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, incorporating child-friendly procedures for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and trial of offences.
It defined different forms of sexual abuse, including penetrative and non-penetrative assault, as well as sexual harassment and pornography, and deems a sexual assault to be “aggravated” under certain circumstances, such as when the abused child is mentally ill or when the abuse is committed by a person in a position of trust or authority vis-à-vis the child, like a family member, police officer, teacher, or doctor. People who traffic children for sexual purposes are also punishable under the provisions relating to abetment in the Act. The Act prescribes stringent punishment graded as per the gravity of the offence, with a maximum term of rigorous imprisonment for life, and fine.
Yet, crimes against children have not come down. On the contrary, from November 2012, when the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act came into force, till March 2015, about 6,816 cases of sex crimes against children were registered by the police (an average of eight cases per day). This does not include the incidents which are not reported or where the police have refused to register a case.
According to figures available with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the highest number of such FIRs were registered in Rajasthan, followed by Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.
The situation remains alarming. As the  judge of the Delhi High Court rightly observed, not only parents, but even trial courts dealing with such cases should create an atmosphere where the victims can depose truthfully.
Accordingly to Justice Mohit S Shah, till recently Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, the pace of convictions under the POCSO Act needs to increase. “We also need better implementation of the Act at the grassroots level and ensure that a level of sensitivity is adopted while dealing with the victims as the law and its procedures end- up intimidating the child. The procedures and environment need to be made more child-friendly if we want to increase conviction in child abuse cases.”
Describing child sexual abuse as a form of terrorism against children, Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar in a recent online petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “With every second child at risk of abuse, it is time to act and protect India’s 400 million children. Our children deserve better. The NDA Government should take this opportunity to create a ‘maximum governance’ approach for the safety of the country’s 400 million children.”
(The writer is senior fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation) 

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