Conspiracy of silence

In morally conservative India, child abuse is still a taboo subject. Only rarely are sexual assaults by authority figures such as police officers, teachers, school or home principals reported or prosecuted. A few days ago in Chattisgarh, northern India, parents of a private school took matters into their own hands and beat up a 50-year-old school principal. Schoolgirls had complained that the man demanded sexual services in exchange for better grades.

Such experiences are part of everyday life for many Indian children: a large-scale study by the Ministry of Women's Affairs concluded in 2007 that 53 percent of Indian children had been sexually abused once or several times. The then minister Renuka Chowdhury spoke of a "conspiracy of silence". "In India, there is a tradition of simply dismissing child abuse," she said. "There's nothing like that here," they usually say."The vast majority of the perpetrators are fathers, other family members or other custodians. That may be why only 17 percent of the young people surveyed favored harsh punishment for the offense. Child rights activists repeatedly complain that the real challenge is encouraging boys and girls to report abuses.One-fifth of the world's children live in India. More than a third of the subcontinent's 1.1 billion inhabitants are under 18 years of age. A large portion lives in hunger and need, reliant on aid.Abuse by aid workers also rarely makes the headlines. A few years ago, the case of two pedophile Britons who set up a children's home for street boys in Mumbai (Bombay) with foreign donations, and sexually exploited the inmates there for years, caused a stir. The two men were later sentenced by an Indian court to a long prison term.

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Christina Cherry
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