A Comprehensive Approach to Addressing Child Abuse in India

Authors: Sreeparna Ghosh and Jyothsna Latha Belliappa

A 2007 study conducted by the Indian government revealed that every second child has been a victim of sexual abuse in the country.[1] Given that 41% of India’s population is under 18,[2] it is essential that the Indian state and civil society take a serious and a comprehensive view of their physical and psychological safety. About two years ago landmark legislation was enacted in this regard: The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012.This comprehensive law addresses all forms of sexual abuse of children.  Before POCSO sexual offences against children in India were tried under the same laws as those that protected adults. However, POCSO recognizes the specific impacts of sexual offences on children and distinguishes between different types of abuse such as sexual assault, penetrative sexual assault, using children for pornography and harassment including exposing children to sexually explicit words, images or gestures, forcing children to expose themselves and showing pornographic material. POCSO provides for stringent punishment based on the severity of the crime and the perpetrator’s relationship to the child, ranging from 1 year imprisonment for attempted offences (Section18) with/without a fine, to a term of 7 years, extendable to a life term and a fine in case of penetrative sexual assault (Section 4).

In the context of prevention POSCO makes the reporting of offences by adults a legal obligation and failure to report abuse, a punishable offence. Moreover, the law also recognizes the unique needs and vulnerabilities of children during investigations by making provisions for the involvement of special educators and translators when recording the child’s statement, for female doctors in examining female children, and for special courts with child-friendly procedures to ensure speedy trials.

Under Section 44 it calls for National and State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights to monitor and implement the law, conduct awareness campaigns, and holds the police responsible for protection of victims.[3] Given the extremely worrying statistics on child sexual abuse (CSA) this legislation has come none too early. However, POCSO comes into effect only after abuse is reported. In order to reduce the actual incidence of CSA, in addition to the strict legislation (which acts as a deterrent), the right environment needs to be created for a) the prevention of abuse and b) for children to report abuse.

Given that CSA is a nascent area of research in India, there are only a few sources of data on the issue. Although nearly eight years old, the 2007 Government of India survey is possibly the most comprehensive quantitative study of child abuse and particularly CSA, and arguably more reliable than National Crime Records Bureau figures which only reveal the extent of reported crimes.[4]  The 2007 survey suggests that children are vulnerable to abuse at home, in their communities, and in schools.[5] The majority of the perpetrators are male, most commonly friends, classmates, uncles and neighbours. Working children are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse.[6]

A 2013 nationally representative qualitative research report indicates epidemic levels and systemic abuse prevalent in Juvenile Justice Homes for children in conflict with the law.[7] Based on the 2007 survey it might be argued that the high incidence of CSA is associated with marginalization and disempowerment of children in our society. In the 2007 survey 48% of children reported emotional abuse and neglect, with parents being the primary perpetrators in over 80% of the cases. Within the home, 51% of girls reported emotional abuse compared to 49% of boys and also spent more time on household work, caring for younger siblings, denial of food and domination by brothers.

This finding is unsurprising given the entrenched patriarchy of Indian society which results in preferential treatment of sons. Adolescent girls in India tend to be restricted in mobility and access to education as they reach puberty; their bodies and sexualities are often represented as shameful and their behaviour is viewed with suspicion by senior male and female kin. Emotional abuse undermines a child’s confidence, creates anxiety and thereby enables sexual abuse to go unnoticed. Children and young adults who are emotionally abused are less likely to view sexually abusive adult behaviour as inappropriate, characterizing it as a form of punishment or even as an expression of adult affection.

They might also view it as their own fault and avoid reporting it for fear of being punished or ridiculed. Another form of abuse that has deep emotional impact is physical abuse. Beating, caning, and being made to adopt unnatural positions or stand for long periods of time are common forms of abuse that continue to be practiced widely in schools despite the criminalization of corporal punishment under the Right to Education Act 2009 (Section 17 (1) prohibits physical punishment and mental harassment of children).

Media reports, our personal observations, and those of our students, who regularly undertake fieldwork in a wide cross-section of schools across the country, suggest that physical and emotional abuse of children is still widely prevalent in schools. In addition to endemic physical and emotional abuse, the absence of clear, comprehensive information on sexuality within homes and schools creates a culture of silence around sexual abuse. Within families, open and authentic conversations about sexuality are taboo even amongst adults, and therefore unlikely to be undertaken with children. Given the sensitivity of the topic, many schools fail to impart sexuality education or do so in a very cursory manner. Consequently children are denied the knowledge to recognize and report abuse. In the absence of clear information, the sexually explicit messages of popular films and ‘item numbers’ (songs) become a source of information on sexuality[8]. The association of masculinity with violence, both against other men and women for example, through the glorification of violence in films, creates a hegemonic understanding and reinforcement of successful masculinities as necessarily violent.

These factors create the climate for all forms of abuse including CSA to proliferate. Therefore there is a need to interrogate these notions of masculinity based on cultures of violence and gender oppression and mainstream more peaceable and supportive forms of masculinity.[9] Finally we argue that CSA tends to be reinforced by gender inequities. In many Indian families, young women are unable to engage in frank conversations about the rights to contraception, to safe sex, to give birth and nurture female children and to adequate nutrition for themselves and their daughters. Therefore enabling women to have greater control over their bodies, their mothering practices and their children’s education will have positive spill over effects for children. As adults model equitable and respectful gender relations, children will imbibe them and traditional patriarchal notions will be undermined.

If we were to adopt a rights- based approach to sexuality education, authentic and unambiguous information on sexuality becomes the right of every child and an important step towards increasing the reporting of CSA.  Educational institutions can play an important role in promoting gender equity and teachers can act as “change agents” by promoting gender equity in curriculum and pedagogy and providing age-appropriate sex-education.[10] In order to realize this role of education both in-service and pre-service teacher training must have a mandatory component on gender studies which would include a module on recognizing and reporting CSA and on appropriate behaviour with children.

The dissemination of information on POCSO needs to be made an integral part of this module so that teachers understand their legal obligation to report CSA. Further, media can be employed to disseminate legal information, challenge oppressive gender regimes, and promote non-violent masculinities.  While legal provisions such as POCSO are an important step for prevention and redress, they are not in themselves enough to address CSA. It is important that other institutions of the state, particularly the education system, and civil society promote the prevention and reporting of CSA by supporting the creation of a more gender equitable culture and safe spaces for children.

[1] Loveleen Kacker,Srinivas Varadan Pravesh Kumar 2007. Study on Child Abuse in India. Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India.

[2] Indian Census 2011: http://censusindia.gov.in

[3] National Commission of Protection of Child Rights: http://ncpcr.gov.in

[4]Source: National Crime Records Bureau:, a national repository of crime statistics in India http://ncrb.gov.in/.

[5] Higher levels of reporting by boys is not an indication that girls are less vulnerable but could be an indication of girls’ unwillingness to report sexual abuse within the patriarchal context where the stigma around sexual abuse is higher for girls and where a high premium is placed on girls’ virginity.

[6] Despite the prohibition of employment of children under several laws in India including the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, India has about 10.12 million child labourers aged between 5 and 14 years according to the 2011 Census.

[7] India’s Hell Holes: Child Sexual Assault in Juvenile Justice Homes, Asian Centre for Human Rights. 2013

[8] Eklavya Foundation Sexuality Education for Youth Report: http://www.eklavya.in/pdfs/annual%20report%2007-08/Appendix%2015%20Sexuality%20Education%20for%20the%20Youth.pdf

[9] Chopra, Radhika. Reframing Masculinities: Narrating The Supportive Practices Of Men. Orient Longman, 2007.

[10] National Focus Group Position Paper on Gender Issues in Education, NCERT 2006. http://www.ncert.nic.in/rightside/links/pdf/focus_group/gender_issues_in_education.pdf