New Delhi: 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 Thursday.
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.”