‘Child sexual abuse in juvenile justice institutions [in India] is rampant, systematic and has reached epidemic proportions,’ says a damning report from the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR).

This past week, “rape” is once again the topic of discussion. There has been despair and outrage because this time we also have to talk about a child, a girl, just five years old. Just as the young woman gang-raped on December 16, 2012 was not the first, and certainly not the last, this little girl sadly is also not the first, nor the last.

Even the daily list of rapes that now inhabit our news pages does not indicate the extent of the sickness that is now staring us in the face. According to a distressing report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), 48,338 children have been raped in the decade between 2001 and 2011. In these 10 years, there has been a 336 per cent increase in the number of child rapes. Yet, this is only a very partial picture because, as the report emphasises, the majority of child rapes are never reported.

The report is disturbing because it focuses on those institutions where children are supposed to be “protected” — observation homes, shelter homes, children’s homes and special homes designed to take care of children who have been abandoned, have run away or been trafficked. Yet, as the 56 pages of the ACHR report titled “India’s hell holes” details, scores of these children, girls and boys, are raped, sodomised, tortured, forced to work and condemned to live in “inhuman conditions”. The authors of the report conclude: “Child sexual abuse in juvenile justice institutions is rampant, systematic and has reached epidemic proportions.”

Just as stronger laws have been demanded to deal with rape, there are laws to address sexual assaults on children. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2006 was enacted for this purpose. In addition, last year the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 was brought in to specifically deal with such crimes against children. Yet, as the report illustrates, these laws have been rendered toothless with the deliberate violation of their provisions in state after state. For instance, under the law, all homes that shelter children are supposed to be registered. Yet scores of these institutions continue to function without registration or oversight and there is no provision in the law to punish them for this. In any case, even formal registration makes little difference as is evident from what happens in officially recognised institutions. The atrocities against children taking place in such places escape discovery because the mandated Inspection Committees that are supposed to carry out surprise checks either do not exist, or if they do, do not function.

As a result, all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, are common in such “protection” homes. The report lists just 39 instances but they read like a modern-day horror story. In each instance, young children who are led to believe that they are in a safe environment end up being sexually abused by the very people tasked to look after them — wardens, watchmen and other staff as well as older inmates. The protectors become the predators. From several of these “hell holes” children have run away, never to be traced. In Karnataka, between 2005 and 2011, 1,089 children below 14 are missing from 34 children’s homes. The story is repeated in West Bengal and other states. Where are these children? How can they disappear from places where they are supposed to be protected? What kind of torture did they experience to force them to run away?

One of the worst horror stories is that of two unregistered homes in Mansarovar and Jagatpura in Jaipur. On March 12, the Rajasthan State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, accompanied by local activists and the media raided the homes and rescued 51 children, 27 girls and 24 boys. Of these, 21 were from Manipur, six each from Nagaland and Uttar Pradesh, four each from Assam, Nepal, Rajasthan and Punjab and two from Delhi. The homes were filthy, the food had fungus and the children said they had been locked into the homes. But that was not all. The girls spoke of sexual abuse including being forced to sleep with the man running the home. A 17-year-old girl from Nagaland said she had been repeatedly raped from the age of 11. The children had been lured to the home with a promise of good food and education. Instead, they were served inedible food and educated in sexual torture. This is only one story. The other 38 documented in the report are equally horrific.

So if children are not safe in these “protection homes” and they are not safe in their own homes, what is the answer? It is evident that just having stronger laws is not enough of a deterrent. At the same time, the demand for instant solutions, even if it is understandable in the face of the daily deluge of such atrocities, will solve little.

The significance of so many more people feeling incensed and angry at this state of affairs is that it will turn the spotlight onto the dark corners, like these protection homes where child sexual abuse has been part of the system. Even if we have woken up to the horror of child sexual abuse because of one atrocity, we must recognise that this malady is not skin deep. It has afflicted the entire body.

E-mail: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com