Child abuse: can India afford to remain in denial?

Traditional notions of the Indian family allow child abuse to happen with impunity.


Last week in the Indian capital Delhi two men drank, watched porn and then lured a five year old from her play area using a chocolate as bait. They kept her in captivity in a rented room in the same building where she lives with her parents and systematically raped her, in turn. For three days. Her cries led neighbours to find her locked in the room, bruised and bleeding. By then, the two men had fled, thinking they had left the child for dead.

Doctors treating the child say they extricated pieces of candle and glass bottle from the little girl’s vaginal orifice. The rapists have confessed to inserting candle parts and a glass bottle into the child in a panicked attempt to stop her bleeding, while confirming that the child was raped even after she began bleeding profusely. She has suffered severe internal injuries as a result and will now need surgery to reconstruct her intestines.

This horrific case has triggered angry protest marches in Delhi, akin to what the city witnessed after the excruciatingly brutal gangrape of a 23-year-old student aboard a bus in December 2012. This time even school children have played a vocal part in the anti-rape demonstrations. Yet rapes and child rapes are continuing unabated.

Just last week the case of a four-year-old girl raped by her neighbour in Haryana  – a state that borders Delhi – was reported, along with the rapes of a five-year-old girl in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a six-year-old girl in the state of Uttar Pradesh, two rapes involving two twelve year olds, and a thirteen-year-old who was gang-raped in Delhi for nine days.

Between 2001 and2011 there have been 48,000 cases of child sexual abuse. Moreover, there has been a 336 per cent jump in cases between 2001 and now. The Indian media is now calling these numbers an epidemic.

There is a valid argument to be made about woefully inadequate public services fuelling the crisis. Inadequate forensic labs, dysfunctional police training colleges, corruption and a lack of sensitisation are key among factors that exacerbate an institutional apathy that victimises the victim. In this most recent case on the nation’s radar, police officers offered the child’s family 2,000 rupees (£20 approx) as a price for their silence.

Yet the most compelling deterrent to such crimes can only come from a change in familial mindsets. India prides itself as a child-friendly country where within families, members of the immediate and extended family are believed to view children as a prime source of their family’s joy. But statistics suggest that the home is where the Indian child and woman is most unsafe. “Ninety-seven per cent [of rapes] are committed within homes, three per cent by strangers,” Delhi’s police commissioner confirmed in an address earlier this week.

Most cases of sexual abuse happening in domestic environments go unreported. But reported cases alone suggest that rape and child sexual abuse are mostly happening within the home and with a disturbingly increasing frequency. A harsh spotlight ought to be put on prevailing notions of the Indian family. The universal understanding in India that the family system is beyond reproach and family elders are perpetually pristine must be questioned.

In Indian society appearances are paramount and the keeping up of appearances by families is the epicentre of this societal veneer. “Covering up” for family members is an essential part of maintaining this veneer. Moreover, as a culture at large, and within families in particular, elders are considered to be beyond blame and censure. Youngsters are told that  elders are the apotheosis of all that is best and beautiful. Accordingly, the young are expected to exhibit an unquestionable reverence to all elders and especially towards relatives.

In Indian culture, every blood relationship has an ascribed moniker such as chacha for father’s brother, mama for mother’s brother and so on. It is under the guise of these sobriquets that relatives commit heinous crimes within their families with impunity. More chillingly, when a child or woman makes abuse known, the social stigma is seen to lie with the victim, not with the perpetrator. A mentality that espouses that children know less, compared with elders who are always right sadly still holds sway. At best, this patronises the child, and at worst labels him or her a repository of shame and discredit. The child is simply put down for his/her audacious attempt to malign a much-respected relative. Hushing up cases of abuse then maintains the status quo of the pride and place of the extended family in the wider culture.

Unsettlingly, the mindset that emanates from traditional notions of the Indian family is seen to empower family members to commit sex crimes towards children, knowing they will be well protected. When tradition serves as a veil behind which atrocities can happen without censure, then tradition must be called up, put in the dock and sent to the gallows. A society that fails its children, has failed entirely. India cannot afford to remain in denial about child sexual abuse any longer. Corrective measures are essential. But shrill chants on the streets in themselves will not herald the urgent change needed. Change has to start with the mindset in every Indian home.  

A placard is seen as demonstrators participate in a protest in Allahabad. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.