NEW DELHI – Children sexually assaulted in India often find themselves humiliated by the police and mistreated by doctors when they pluck up the courage to report abuse, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
In a report released amid continuing anger at the handling of sexual assault cases in the wake of a deadly gang-rape in New Delhi in December, the rights watchdog said Indian authorities must become more sensitive toward victims.
“Children who bravely complain of sexual abuse are often dismissed or ignored by the police, medical staff and other authorities,” Meenakashi Ganguly, HRW’s regional director, said while unveiling the report. “Instead, they subject the victim to mistreatment and humiliation.”
The 82-page report, titled “Breaking the Silence,” urges the Indian government to ensure rigorous implementation of child protection laws and strict monitoring of child care facilities. It also calls for an end to traumatic medical examinations and insensitive treatment by police and other authorities that subject victims to further distress.
It quotes the mother of a 3-year-old girl who was left in severe pain after being seen by doctors examining her alleged assault. “For six to eight hours after the examination my daughter did not urinate because it was hurting her so much,” the mother, who cannot be named, was quoted as saying in the report.
The report also details how children are sometimes forced to undergo a so-called finger test to determine their sexual history, even though forensic experts say the examination has no scientific value.
Ganguly said it was this sort of “mistreatment” that needs to be addressed and called for an urgent overhaul of India’s criminal justice system.
Many of the criticisms in the report echo those voiced by protesters in the aftermath of the fatal Dec. 16 gang-rape of a female university student aboard a bus in New Delhi, which triggered nationwide demonstrations and deep soul-searching about the handling of sex attacks.
There are no clear statistics on the number of child abuse cases in India, primarily because of the low reporting of such crimes. The Ministry Of Women And Child Development said in 2007 that around 70 percent of abused children never report the matter to anyone.
“It is hard enough for a sexually abused child or their relatives to come forward and seek help, but instead of handling cases with sensitivity, Indian authorities often demean and retraumatize them,” Ganguly told reporters. “The failure to implement needed police reforms to be more sensitive and supportive to victims has made police stations places to be dreaded.”
The report contains more than 100 interviews on the experience of dealing with government institutions.
Sexual abuse of children is common in homes, schools and residential care facilities across India, and critics say the authorities have a poor record in bringing offenders to justice. The most high-profile verdict saw two British men jailed for six years in 2011 for abusing several boys at a shelter they ran in Mumbai — 10 years after charges were first filed.
Last year, the government enacted the Protection of Children from Sexual Offence Act, which sets out punishments for all forms of sexual abuse as well as guidelines for police and courts to handle the victims.
“It is a very good initiative from the government,” Ganguly said. “But government efforts to tackle the problem will fail unless protection mechanisms are properly implemented and the justice system is reformed to ensure abuse is reported and fully prosecuted.”