News / Asia

New Indian Law Takes Aim at Curbing Child Abuse

Rebecca Byerly
India is unveiling a new law aimed at curbing the sexual abuse of young people. The law could empower the country’s nascent child protection services and also punish those who ignore abuse.

This woman - who asked not to be identified -- says her sister’s husband started sexually abusing her when she was nine years old.  She eventually told her parents, but they did nothing. She says going to the police was unthinkable.

Years later she discovered her husband was sexually abusing their four-year-old daughter. This time, she went to the police, but pressing charges was difficult. She says the police, doctors, and even the judge tried to prevent her from taking action.

“When I appeared in court the first thing the judge told me was that these things don’t happen in India.  They only happen in America and Europe,” said the abuse victim.

The story is similar to those of hundreds of thousands of people across the subcontinent, where a 2007 survey indicated more than half of children have been sexually abused. But a new law, passed in November, called the “Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act” could change that.

It’s the first in India that distinguishes between child and adult victims. It also makes it possible to prosecute for molestation, in addition to rape, and shifts the burden of proof onto accused abusers.

Anuja Gupta, who heads the Delhi-based organization Recovering and Healing from Incest believes the law is a step in the right direction.

“Having a law is an indication that, yes as a society, we accept that sexual abuse is happening -- in our families, in our society to children wherever they are in India,” Gupta said.

Even among supporters there are worries about whether some clauses in the law go too far. A “mandatory reporting” clause, that requires anyone who hears of a case of sexual abuse to report it, may intimidate people from coming forward.

The head of Delhi’s juvenile police unit disagrees. Suman Nalwa says “mandatory reporting” is exactly what’s needed to hold police, family members and medical workers accountable.

“With mandatory reporting, once it is clear that they can be poked (arrested), there will be a pressure on them not to hide these things that are happening. I think it will be another corner stone in the protection of children,” Nalwa said.

Shanta Sinha, the chairwoman for India’s commission for the protection of child rights hopes the law will expedite children’s court cases.

“But now with the passage of law we hope the process of justice would be a process of healing for the child,” Sinha said.

Given the government’s history of failing to implement previous legislation, there is concern that this law could also fail. To succeed, activists say there must be better coordination between teachers, doctors the judiciary and law enforcement, in dealing with abused children.

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