Jyoti’s is a familiar story for hundreds of thousands of Indians, where there is little legal recourse, no child protection services, and a cultural tradition that prizes family loyalty above all – even if that means turning a blind eye to abuse within the home. Some parents also avoid reporting abuse for fear it will cause more trauma. And if a case does make it to court, children are often questioned with their alleged abuser in the room or subjected to invasive medical examinations.
Activists say those prevailing attitudes and red tape have allowed child abuse to run rife.
But a new law that went into effect in November seeks to change that by bringing abuse to light and perpetrators to justice. The key change involves shifting the burden of proof onto abusers and envisioning special courts to expedite cases of child abuse.
“Having a law is an indication that, as a society, we have accepted that child abuse is happening in our families, within our communities to children wherever they are in India,” says Anuja Gupta, head of the Delhi-based organization Recovering and Healing from Incest.
The “Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act” also makes it possible to prosecute for molestation in addition to rape. It’s the first law in the country that distinguishes between child and adult victims and sets harsh penalties – up to life in prison.
A 2007 government study that interviewed more than 12,000 children across 13 Indian states found more than half had experienced some form of sexual abuse, with the highest incidences recorded in northern Delhi, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and the northeast state of Assam.