Print edition : October 24, 2003

Sexual abuse of children is a very real problem in India, and the situation is aided by the absence of effective legislation and the silence that surrounds the offence.

I am filled with shame, disgust, guilt and low self-esteem. What I thought all along was affection, I realise now - after 12 years of sexual relationship with my uncle - was sexual abuse.

- Anjana, 15 years.

SHOCKINGLY, over half the children in the country share Anjana's anguish. India has the dubious distinction of having the world's largest number of sexually abused children with a child below 16 years raped every 155th minute, a child below 10 every 13th hour, and one in every 10 children sexually abused at any point in time. These figures resoundingly break the silence that surrounds sexual abuse of children and perpetuates the evil.


According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in every four girls and one in every seven boys in the world are sexually abused. But Lois J. Engelbrecht, a researcher working on the problems of child sexual abuse, quotes studies showing that over 50 per cent of children in India are sexually abused, a rate that is higher than in any other country (see interview). Huma Khan of the Kanpur-based Centre for the Study of Human Rights terms child sexual abuse as one of the least documented violations. But studies made across India, documented in Grace Poore's resource book The Children We Sacrifice (which accompany the documentary on sexually abused girls) show the wide prevalence of the problem.

The Delhi-based Sakshi Violation Intervention Centre in a 1997 study that interviewed 350 schoolchildren, found that 63 per cent of the girl respondents had been sexually abused by a family member; 25 per cent raped, and over 30 per cent sexually abused by the father, grandfather or a male friend of the family. A 1999 study by the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences revealed that 58 of the 150 girls interviewed had been raped before they were 10 years old.

RAHI, a Delhi-based organisation that provides support to victims of sexual abuse, reports that of the 1,000 upper and higher-middle class college students interviewed, 76 per cent had been abused as children, 31 per cent by someone known to the family and 40 per cent by a family member, and 50 per cent of them before the age of 12.

"It is time we acknowledged the problem and did something about it," says Dr. Preethi Menon, a Chennai-based paediatric psychiatrist dealing with child sexual abuse. "Very simply," she says, "sexual abuse is when a powerful person uses a vulnerable person for sexual gratification." It can take several forms - from verbal, visual, tactile, exhibitionist and pornographic offences and fondling to anything that sexually stimulates the offender. The strategy of the offender can vary from tricking, luring, forcing and pressuring to threatening the victim. According to Dr. Preethi, it is an abuse of power and a violation of the child's right to a normal and trusting relationship.

The main cause of the high prevalence of child abuse in India is the way children are perceived - virtually as properties of adults. Says Lois: "It is also important how boys are treated as over 90 per cent of the abusers are men." Also, says the Bangalore-based child psychiatrist Dr. Shekar Seshadri, often, in protecting the family structure, decisions and judgments are based on the concept that the individual derives strength from the family, and it, in turn, from the community, and the community, from the country; this tends to drown the needs and trauma of the individual.

Says Radhika Chandiramani, coordinator of the Delhi-based TARSHI, an organisation that deals with reproductive and sexual health issues: "In India, children are expected to respect and obey adults. This is a major problem that perpetuates child sexual abuse." As Radhika points out, the children, taught to obey adults implicitly are abused only by adults and that too, from within the family. "How can the child say `no'?" she asks. "Yes" has no meaning when the child has no option to say "no". Yet, every child that is abused suffers from guilt and shame throughout his/her life.

According to Dr. Preethi, no child is safe; every child is vulnerable to sexual abuse. In her documentary "The Children We Sacrifice", Grace Poore calls sexually abused children the victims of a culture that prioritises family harmony, honour and duty more than individual trauma and pain. The "silence about sex" culture forbids parents from talking to their children about sexuality, and frowns upon any non-sexual intimate relationship with the opposite gender. The problem, according to the Chennai-based psychiatrist Dr. S. Vijayakumar, does not appear big simply because it is suppressed. These factors contribute to a high rate of child sexual abuse in India.

There are, according to Lois, primarily four driving factors that lead to child sexual abuse - the need to abuse a child sexually; convincing oneself about the act; building a good relationship with the people around the child; and gaining the child's trust. "There is thus," she says, "much time and a number of ways to stop child sexual abuse." Prevention, a recent report by the Delhi-based Voluntary Health Association of India argues, is easier especially as over 85 per cent of the offenders are those whom the children know and trust. Invariably, the familiarity and the trust they enjoy with the children - usually built over time - make them abuse the power over the children.

Prevention can be focussed at three levels. At the primary level, the focus can be on removing the causes, strengthening the child's competence to recognise and react, increasing parental awareness, strengthening social vigilance, and bringing in effective and punitive penal policy. At the secondary level, the emphasis should be on early detection, quick intervention and provision of a supportive environment in schools and families. Tertiary intervention should involve coordination among the police, courts, counsellors, doctors and social workers.

The offenders generally fall into two broad categories - paedophiles or fixated persons, and regressed individuals. While the first category plans the incident well and is more dangerous, the latter, which is more common in India, comes mostly from within the family. According to Lois, while sex abusers in general are clever, intelligent and manipulative, paedophiles are even more so - they fix their target and plan and execute the act meticulously. The regressed offenders usually abuse children to relieve the stress they are unable to cope with. Hence the victims of the regressed are usually children from within the family who are accessible and over whom they can exert power. Paedophiles, on an average, have 300 victims in their lifetime - though some are documented to have had over 1,000 - and the regressed five to seven victims. Anita Ratnam of the Bangalore-based Samvada, which supports victims of sexual abuse, says that sexual abuse episodes are the results of opportunistic, calculated and rational moves.

According to Lois, boys are equally affected by sexual abuse. She argues that it may be worse for them when men abuse them sexually. Many sexually abused boys develop the fear that they are homosexuals themselves or have been infected and have to become homosexuals. Also, Indian families do not protect boys as much as they do girls. This may also be responsible for over 90 per cent of sexual abusers being men.

Says Dr. Preethi Menon: "Sexual abuse has immediate as well as long-term effects on the child, from emotional and behavioural problems to abnormal sexual behaviour and psychiatric disorders. Suicidal tendencies and drug abuse are common long-term effects."

According to Dr. Vijayakumar, sexual abuse leaves a deep emotional scar in children primarily because the act is done secretively. He says: "There is a clear behavioural and emotional pattern in the abused." To begin with, the child hardly talks about the incident. And, even if the child does, no one takes her seriously. The child then begins to feel that there is something wrong with her and develops a low self-esteem. This pushes her into a guilt trap. As she grows up, her compulsive behaviour further reinforces her guilt. Several adult problems, according to him, have their roots in abuse in childhood.

The report by the Department of Women and Child Development on the implementation of the Convention of Child Rights in India, prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, has identified child sexual abuse as a priority issue for immediate action.

Although child abuse is rampant, India has no separate legislation to deal with it. The legal remedies available include the laws on rape (Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code), sexual molestation (Section 354 of the IPC) and sodomy (Section 377 of the IPC). But rape laws only recognise sexual crimes involving penile penetration, and are totally dependent on medical evidence. Such evidence is very difficult to get, as child sexual abuse is usually not one isolated incident but a series of incidents; it even involves episodes in which the offender does not touch the victim. The sexual molestation law covers all sexual offences "that outrage the modesty of the victim", other than penile penetration. However, these two are bailable offences and attract only punishments of a maximum of two years in jail and/or a fine of few thousand rupees. Only Section 377, which criminalises sodomy, is harsh. Though this section can be used in the case of child sexual abuse, its reference to "unusual sexual offences makes it difficult for child victims to use this option as a legal remedy. As there is no clear definition of sexual abuse, the victims are largely at the mercy of the judiciary's discretion, says Chennai-based lawyer R. Rajaram.

According to the VHAI report, a child victim suffers four times - at the time of the offence, when narrating the incident, during medical examination and if brought to the court. According to the study, the silence about sex-related matters and the lengthy and cumbersome legal procedures perpetuate the problem in India. The average time taken for a sexual abuse case to find its way from the lower courts to the higher courts is 10-15 years. Between 1992 and 1994, 48 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the newspapers. The children affected were in the 8-10 age group, barring one who was six months old. The VHAI report argues that if and when the cases come to the courts for hearing, the children would have become adults and may want to erase the nightmare of their experiences from their consciousness. Dragging the children and their mothers to court for years, the report argues, is "secondary victimisation", and is often worse than the offence itself.

Child sexual abuse seems to be pervasive because, as Lois says, it is hardly spoken about, and even if it is, there are hardly any legal measures to deal with it. Court proceedings, if things come to that level, are a long-drawn, traumatic process. This, she argues, is what the abusers take advantage of.

Most often, sexually abused children make no noise about their traumatic experiences. It is this that encourages offenders. Dr. Preethi agrees that "this secrecy has to be broken"; for this, she lays stress on talking to children about sexual abuse, listening to them, believing them, and recognising symptoms such as physical complaints and behavioural and psychological changes. She says: "Silence does not mean all is fine with the child." A child's silence can be eloquent. Only, if we care to listen.

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