Child sexual abuse in India: the police blames the victims

This is a press release put out by HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH on 7 February; link to full report towards the end

India: Child Sex Abuse Shielded by Silence and Neglect Police, Doctors, Courts Need to Change Policies and Mindset to Support Victims

New Delhi, February 7, 2013:  The Indian government should improve protections for children from sexual abuse as part of broader reform efforts following the gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in December 2012, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

Child sexual abuse is disturbingly common in homes, schools, and residential care facilities in India. A government-appointed committee set up after the New Delhi attack to recommend legal and policy reform has found that child protection schemes “have clearly failed to achieve their avowed objective.”

The 82-page report, “Breaking the Silence: Child Sexual Abuse in India,” examines how current government responses are falling short, both in protecting children from sexual abuse and treating victims. Many children are effectively mistreated a second time by traumatic medical examinations and by police and other authorities who do not want to hear or believe their accounts. Government efforts to tackle the problem, including new legislation to protect children from sexual abuse, will also fail unless protection mechanisms are properly implemented and the justice system reformed to ensure that abuse is reported and fully prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said.

“India’s system to combat child sexual abuse is inadequate because government mechanisms fail to ensure the protection of children,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Children who bravely complain of sexual abuse are often dismissed or ignored by the police, medical staff, and other authorities.”

The report uses detailed case studies rather than a quantitative analysis to examine government mechanisms to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch conducted more than 100 interviews with victims of child sexual abuse and their relatives, government child protection officials and independent experts, police officers, doctors, social workers, and lawyers who have handled cases of child sexual abuse.

Addressing child sexual abuse is a challenge all over the world, but in India shortcomings in both state and community responses add to the problem, Human Rights Watch said. The criminal justice system, from the time police receive a complaint until trials are completed, needs urgent reform. Poorly trained police often refuse to register complaints. Instead, they subject the victim to mistreatment and humiliation.

Doctors and officials said that the absence of guidelines and training for sensitive medical treatment and examination of victims of child sexual abuse contribute to trauma. In four of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, doctors had used the “finger test” as a part of the examination of girl rape victims, even though forensic experts say that the test has no scientific value, and a top-level government committee has called for it to be abolished.

“It is hard enough for a sexually abused child or their relatives to come forward and seek help, but instead of handling cases with sensitivity Indian authorities often demean and re-traumatize them,” Ganguly said. “The failure to implement needed police reforms to be more sensitive and supportive to victims has made police stations places to be dreaded.”

The sexual abuse of children in residential care facilities for orphans and other at-risk children is a particularly serious problem, Human Rights Watch said. Inspection mechanisms are inadequate in most parts of the country. Many privately run facilities are not even registered. As a result, the government has neither a record of all the orphanages and other institutions operating in the country nor a list of the children they are housing. Abuse occurs even in supposedly well-run and respected institutions because of poor monitoring.

Set up by the government in December 2012 in the wake of the Delhi attack, a committee headed by Justice J.S. Verma has made several recommendations to address sexual assault and expressed particular concern over the plight of children in residential care institutions. Instead of facilitating investigations into allegations of child sexual abuse, managers of facilities engage in denials and dismissal of complaints. After investigating allegations of abuse in one such facility, Vinod Tikoo of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights said that it revealed a massive breakdown. “It is not neglect. It is systemic failure,” he told Human Rights Watch.

“Shockingly the very institutions that should protect vulnerable children can place them at risk of horrific child sexual abuse,” Ganguly said. “State governments should immediately implement a more effective system to register and rigorously monitor government, private, and religious child care institutions.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed the enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012. By adopting this law, the Indian government took a significant step in acknowledging and attempting to address the widespread sexual abuse of the country’s children. Under the law, all forms of child sexual abuse are now specific criminal offenses for the first time ever in India. The law also establishes important guidelines for the police and courts to deal with victims sensitively and provides for the setting up of specialist child courts.

However, the government needs to ensure proper implementation of the act and other relevant laws and policies so that there is a vigilant safety net, Human Rights Watch said. This is particularly vital because children are often sexually abused by people known to them and regarded as authority figures, such as older relatives, neighbors, school staff, or the staff and older children in residential care facilities for orphans and other at-risk children. Implementation of existing measures to improve the well-being of the country’s children, including the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, the Juvenile Justice Act, and creation of independent child rights commissions, remains a challenge.

The Indian government should provide training and resources to ensure that the police, doctors, court officials, and government and private social workers, including child welfare authorities, managers of children’s residential care institutions, and school authorities, respond properly when there are allegations of child sexual abuse. The government should take immediate steps to address the lack of faith in government institutions that prevents many people from reporting child sexual abuse by holding to account those that fail to handle such cases in a prompt and sensitive manner.

India is a party to the core international human rights treaties that protect children, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. These treaties impose an obligation on states at all levels of government to take measures to protect children against sexual violence and abuse, and to provide a remedy where fundamental protections have been violated. The ICCPR not only holds a state responsible for protecting individuals from abusive state action, but for responding appropriately and effectively to abuses committed by private actors.

“The Indian government at the highest levels recognizes that much more needs to be done to protect the country’s children from sexual abuse, but it has yet to take significant steps to address problems of discrimination, bias, and sheer insensitivity,” Ganguly said. “As many officials have pointed out to us, creating laws or providing training is an important step, but this has to be followed up with concrete action. Just as important, a change in mindset is needed where both abusers and those who protect them by neglecting their duty are held accountable.”

The following quotes are from interviews by Human Rights Watch. The names of victims or family members have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

“The police refused to register the complaint quickly. I didn’t like how they behaved. Some of them told me that I must have wanted to go with those boys. They told me to admit I was their girlfriend. When I went for the check-up, the doctor said I had been beaten up, bitten and scratched, but she said there was no internal injury. I started to feel helpless. Nobody believed me, and nobody believes me now. The villagers keep saying horrible things about me.” – Neha (pseudonym) was raped when she was 16 years old by two men from her village.

“When I got to the police station I was interrogated by the station chief… I was kept in the police station and was locked up. They kept insisting that I change my statement otherwise they threatened that something would happen to me… They kept me in jail for 12 days. They didn’t let me meet my parents. When I think of that time I’m afraid.” – Krishna (pseudonym) was raped in June 2012, when she was 12 years old.

“The doctor was very young. I don’t think she knew much about rape. She kept asking if there was any bleeding, if she had a problem walking. For six to eight hours after the examination my daughter did not urinate because it was hurting her so much.” – Sara (pseudonym) describing the medical examination of her three-year-old daughter.

“Institutions fear a bad name if something wrong is reported, which in turn affects their funding. Thus there is an unwritten rule that no abuse should be reported and if it does get reported it must be denied at the very outset.” – Bharti Ali, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, a New Delhi nongovernmental organization.

5 thoughts on “Child sexual abuse in India: the police blames the victims”

  1. Governments can only punish. It is the larger society that can effectively address this issue.


  2. Before drafting any laws for the prevention and punitive actions in case of child sex abuse, more studies must be done. More stats must be dug up as to how many kids are abused per year, who is the abuser, what is the psychopathology of child rapists, how many cases are registered, how many cases go to conviction etc. As many research studies are carried out and published, the more solid data will be present, the laws will be that much more relevant and rational. Child psychologists, lawyers, social workers who run kids’s organisations, the police and psychiatrists must come together to effect these studies and present a water-tight case for formulating better laws.


  3. To really understand and address any problem if statistical tools are to be used, the first step would be to choose a significant size, geographical spread, and samples across a strata for a chosen trait significant to the subject like both victim’s and the aggressors’ age , socio-economic and cultural background etc. In this case, 100 seems to few to conclude “Children who bravely complain of sexual abuse are often dismissed or ignored by the police, medical staff, and other authorities”. The implications of the aforesaid mode of sampling would throw light on following:
    1) Whether the police stations approached, habitually turn down all such requests (that is complaints of sexual harassments) as a matter of routine. In that case, it is not ignorance, but reluctance, a bigoted misogynist mindset. It has been noted that a bigoted mind generally leans towards misogynist tendencies. Thus, the location and composition of the police station is generally of importance. 2) Age of the victim is a crucial factor, the general tendency in any patriarchal mindset is to consider a child of 14 and above (especially if physically mature in appearance) to assume that ’emotional and mental’ response would be like a ‘mature nubile woman.
    3) One should also factor in the tendency, especially in the lower income (associated caste levels) groups to understate the age of a girl due to stigma attached to marriageable girls remaining single. So, if the sample in 100 contains predominantly 16 or 17+ minors, then it is possible, that there is a likely hood that actual age could be higher and that after interaction with such victims, the police might fall into the category at S.No.2 above.
    4) Then there is the nature of sexual abuse itself. In case of rape (penetration) of young children say up to 15, by an older man is certainly going to involve grievous injuries. In other forms of abuse, masturbation, forcing oral sex out of the child, committing oral sex etc,, stopping short of actual rape, as evidence of actual physical abuse is difficult to ascertain, police might succumb to the theory ‘wilful maligning and settling of scores’ – not justified, but which police would consider as in such cases, as the aggressors are generally known to the victims or related.
    5) The nature of the aggressor is also important. A substance abuser, who has worked himself into a sexual frenzy , a porn addict similarly primed would seek a victim. If a ‘suitable target’, minor or mature; if not available, he would settle for second best, a young child. One needs to note that these are not paedophiles. They are just opportunistic and hence doubly dangerous as the effect of their action can be physically horrendous for the victims unlike milder forms of sexual abuse resorted to by some paedophile. This is because, a paedophile is in there for a long haul. He needs to hide his trait, camouflage his intentions and stay anchored in the society he lives in. So his victims might not be physically mutilated except in extreme cases.
    Thus, the need of the hour is not just to make police aware of a law, but also ensure that in all such cases where a complaint is raised on sexual abuse and physically difficult to prove, state approved child psychiatrists need to be called to the station to evaluate the victims emotional and mental trauma and to guide the police in filing the FIR.


  4. Well written Shivam, I have just read BITTER CHOCOLATE from Pinki Virani, who herself is a survival of child sexual abuse. It is so complicated to understand why don’t we have law and most importantly awareness about it. or, we know everything and turning blind about it. Yesteryear Anushka Shankar came out and told her story of pain, The reason I am taking these name because in all these case abuser was someone very close to these children. So not only government needs to take strong steps against child sexual abuse, our parents need to be more aware and talkative about it.

    But the sad part is, nothing is happening on government part, and parents seem to silencing their children. In case of single parent (only mother) child, such cases are more in occurrence by step father or mother’s mail friends. We know the condition of women in our country, who often are subjected to mail ego or violence and mostly are in condition in which they can’t raise their voices against their husbands who are constantly ruining her child’s innocent phase of life. We have seen the cases where child was harassed sexually while the mother knowing it and it revealed when girl got pregnant.

    I salute those who are raising their voices against it but they need support from Government institutions and parents.


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