By the grim standards of the dystopia India’s children inhabit, S.P.S. Rathore’s crime was utterly ordinary.

In December last, Indians watched in outrage as S.P.S. Rathore, former Haryana Director-General of Police, smirked at the end of court proceedings which saw him receive a six-month prison sentence for sexually abusing a teenager 19 years ago.

Not far from the Chandigarh courtroom where Rathore was convicted, a panchayat in Rohtak gathered to discuss the fate of a seven-year-old girl who had been sexually abused by a retired schoolteacher. The panchayat ordered that the hair of the perpetrator, Sushil Kumar, be shaved off — but asked the victim’s family not to inform the police. It was only three weeks later, after Kumar’s sons threatened the family, that the matter was reported to the police. The child’s story was buried in inside pages of local newspapers; the police say evidentiary issues render it unlikely the perpetrator will ever be punished.

Kumar is not the only paedophile who has not received national attention. Few know the story of a two-year-old raped by a construction contractor in Bangalore, a 10-year-old girl from Valsad raped by her uncle or the Latur teenager raped by three young men in her village and hanged from a jamun tree. Part of the reason Rathore’s appalling crime drew attention was that it fitted neatly with tropes of villainy familiar from pop-culture: among them, uniformed criminals immune from the law and powerful politicians who guarantee them impunity.

But the truth India has shied away from these past weeks is this: Rathore’s crime was, by the standards of our society, utterly ordinary. For the most part, India’s children live in a nightmare; a dystopia founded on our collective complicity and silence. By the Government of India’s account, more than two-thirds of Indian children experience beatings in their homes, schools, workplace and government institutions — beatings which, if conducted in prison cells, would count as torture. Every second child in India, the government says, also faces one or more forms of sexual abuse.

Yet, no government has found the time or energy to enact a law against the abuse of children — leaving the authorities, when they can bestir themselves to deliver justice, to respond using legalisation intended to prevent prostitution, beggary, trafficking and rape. There is no institutional machinery to investigate schools, homes and children’s workplace for sexual and physical abuse. There are no police officers trained in the special skills needed to deal with child abuse. Barring a handful of organisations and individuals working to address the needs of abused children, there is no resource which victims and their families can turn to for help.

Terrifying facts

In 2007, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development released the thoughtful —and terrifying — Study on Child Abuse in India. More than 12,000 children were polled to arrive at an empirical picture of the scale of beatings and sexual crimes that Indian children endure. Fifty-three per cent of the children said they had encountered “one or more forms of sexual abuse;” 68.99 per cent said they had suffered physical abuse, including beatings. More than a fifth reported severe sexual abuse, including assault, having been compelled to fondle adults’ private parts, exhibit themselves or be photographed nude. Well over half of those reporting severe sexual abuse were boys, the study found.

Popular wisdom holds that sexual abuse takes place when children are in environments outside the supposedly safe confines of their homes and schools. That, the study found, was simply not true. Fifty-three per cent of children not going to school said they had been sexually abused in their family environment. Just under half said they had encountered sexual abuse at their schools. These figures, interestingly, were about the same as children in institutional care who said they had been sexually abused — 47.08 per cent. Most vulnerable were children in workplaces, 61.31 per cent of whom had been sexually abused.

Boys in all but four of 13 States — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa — were found to be more at risk of sexual abuse than girls. In Delhi, a staggering 65.6 per cent of the boys reported that they had been sexually abused.

Most at risk of serious sexual abuse, the study found, were children between 11 and 18 — although the group between six and 10 also reported significant levels of assault. Analysed by age group, the study states, sexual abuse was reported by “63.64 per cent child respondents in the age group of 15-18 years, 52.43 per cent in the age group of 13-14 years and 42.06 per cent in the age group of 5-12 years.” Assam, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh were found to have the highest levels of sexual abuse, with Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa recording the lowest.

We know, from separate studies, that the use of children in prostitution is also widespread. In their 2005 study, Trafficking in Women and Children in India, S. Sen and P.M. Nair estimated that there are up to half-a-million girl children from across the South Asian region working as prostitutes in India.

Elsewhere in the world, the existence of well-functioning justice mechanisms — and an open public debate on child sexual abuse — seems to have helped contain the problem to at least some extent. In the United Kingdom, a 2000 study by the National Study for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that about 16 per cent of children experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16. In the United States, one in four girls and one in six boys reported similar experiences. Horrific as these figures are, they are still well below the levels the Government of India’s study suggests are prevalent in our country.

Victims of violence

Depressingly, sexual abuse is only part of a wider gamut of violence. Sixty-nine per cent of the children polled reported having been physically abused — a term the authors of the Study defined as behaviour manifesting itself in kicking, slapping or corporal punishment at homes, schools, institutions and workplaces. In all the 13 States covered by the study, the incidence of physical abuse directed at children was above 50 per cent — a sign of just how widespread and legitimate the use of force is considered across the country. More than 80 per cent of children in Assam, Mizoram, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh reported physical abuse.

Most of the victims of physical abuse, the Study found, were very young children. Forty-eight per cent of the respondents who reported physical abuse were between five and 12 years old, while 26.29 per cent were 13 or 14. Older children, aged between 15 and 18, seemed to be targeted less for violence; just over a quarter reported encountering abuse. Boys reported encountering violence more often than girls in all States except Gujarat and Kerala. “In all age groups, an overwhelming majority of children (65.01%) reported being beaten at school, which means that two out of three children are victims of corporal punishment.”

The findings of the Study, its authors noted, were broadly corroborated by several other independent studies. Maulana Azad Medical College researcher Deepti Pagare found that over three-fourths of children in Delhi’s Child Observation Home had reported being subjected to physical abuse. Signs of abuse were found on the bodies of about half the children studied by Dr. Pagare. Fathers made up over half the reported perpetrators, and Dr. Pagare found a significant association between physical abuse of children and domestic violence in homes as well as substance abuse. Save the Children and Tulir, in a 2006 study conducted in West Bengal, found that almost three-quarters of child domestic workers had been physically abused. In 41.5 per cent of cases, the perpetrator was a member of the employers’ family.

What needs to be done? For one, India’s criminal justice system simply doesn’t have either the legal instruments or police infrastructure to deal with crimes against children. Despite calls from campaigners and child-rights groups, India is yet to pass a specific law on child sexual abuse — a legislative failure that makes prosecution in many situations almost impossible. Early this year, Punjab and Haryana High Court judges Mukul Mudgal and Jasbir Singh announced that they intended considering guidelines for the prosecution of child abuse cases. However, thoroughgoing criminal justice reforms will be needed for such efforts to yield results. Just 0.034 per cent of the Plan expenditure in 2006-2007 — an appalling figure — was committed to child protection.

In 1974, the National Policy for Children declared children a “supreme national asset.” No country in which two-thirds of children report beatings, and half experience sexual abuse, can make that claim with honesty. We must rip away the shrouds of silence that conceal the sheer pervasiveness of child abuse in our society. Our silence and inaction against the paedophiles in our homes, schools and neighbourhoods make us complicit in the horrific crimes being perpetrated against our children.

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