India's efforts to combat child sex abuse 'inadequate': Human Rights Watch

More than 7,200 children, including infants, are reported raped each year, despite legislation passed to combat the problem. Samanth Subramanian reports from New Delhi

Children watch television at an orphanage in Hyderabad. Child abuse is still common in India, despite efforts to stamp it out.
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NEW DELHI // India's efforts to combat child sex abuse are inadequate despite legislation that was passed last year specifically to combat the problem, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

The report released yesterday, titled Breaking the Silence, comes less than two months after the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a New Delhi bus brought the issue of sexual violence to the fore in the country.

The report did not include statistics on child sexual abuse in India, but it quoted other studies to note that more than 7,200 children, including infants, are raped each year. Far more cases go unreported.

Another study, conducted in 2005 by Save the Children and the Indian non-governmental organisation Tulir, found that 48 per cent of boys and 39 per cent of girls in a sample of 2,211 schoolchildren had experienced some form of sexual abuse.

The rights organisation also criticised state-run child facilities, saying that sexual abuse is common in these institutions.

"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 of Human Rights Watch. "Children who …complain of sexual abuse are often dismissed or ignored by the police, medical staff, and other authorities."

Families often refrain from reporting cases to the police because of the associated stigma.

According to a survey of 12,500 children conducted by the government in 2007, only 25 per cent of abused children had told anyone about their trauma, and only 3 per cent of the cases were reported to the police.

Human Rights Watch was critical of the police and the judiciary's response even in cases that were reported.

"When a case is reported, there needs to be a simple response, by the police, by the health services, and by the whole system," said Vidya Reddy, director of the Chennai-based Tuli, which advocates for child rights. "But at the moment it is a three-ring circus."

The Human Rights Watch Report noted that police officers conducted degrading and unpleasant interviews; court cases can drag on for years without resolution; doctors used insensitive techniques to determine whether sexual abuse had taken place, and failed to offer counselling to victims.

Krishna, a woman from Uttar Pradesh who was raped when she was 12 years old, told Human Rights Watch that, during her medical examination, "it hurt, and I was scared". The doctor, Krishna said, told her: "Oh, it was just a small rape, it is no big deal."

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, which was passed by parliament last May, has sought to set up special "child courts" to try cases of sexual abuse.

Aruna Kashyap, a women's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch in Mumbai, told The National that many states are "in the process of developing guidelines for these courts". The progress of this process, she said, varied from state to state.

In the state of Maharashtra, for instance, the special courts have not yet been established, said Maharukh Adenwalla, a Mumbai-based high court lawyer who works in the field of child rights.

Civil society groups and individuals, Ms Adenwalla said yesterday, had been meeting to thrash out recommendations to the government on the structure of these special courts.

"We've prepared documents about what kind of physical and human resource infrastructure these courts should have," Ms Adenwalla said. "Today or tomorrow, we're handing it over to the relevant authorities, and we hope the courts will be set up very soon."

The Human Rights Watch report also recommended a more stringent watch over children's homes and orphanages, where sexual abuse is rampant. Nearly 20 million children in India are in some form of institutional care.

The report cited the case of Apna Ghar, a facility in the town of Rohtak in Haryana, where a team from the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights found last May that girls had been forced into sex for money and had been beaten.

One member of the team described the conditions in Apna Ghar as "insane, unbelievable". Vinod Tikoo, another member of the team, told Human Rights Watch: "It is not neglect. It is systemic failure."

India's Juvenile Justice Act, which is intended to regulate such residential care institutions, "actually contains no provisions for penalising organisations or individuals who refuse to register their institutions", the Human Rights Watch report noted.

"Across India there are many institutions (for example, ones linked to schools or religious bodies) that are registered under different laws and many more that are not registered at all," the report said.

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