NEW DELHI -- Sexual abuse of children is "disturbingly common" in India, and the government's response to it has fallen short, both in protecting children and in treating victims, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Thursday.
The group urged the government to better shield children from sexual abuse as part of a broad push for reform after the death of a young woman who was gang-raped here in December. Although there are child protection laws on the books, including one passed last year, the rights organization said the measures were not properly enforced.
"Children are sexually abused by relatives at home, by people in their neighborhoods, at school and in residential facilities for orphans and other at-risk children," said the 82-page report, titled "Breaking the Silence: Child Sexual Abuse in India."
Yet most cases go unreported. A 2007 government-sponsored study, based on interviews with 12,500 children in 13 Indian states, said that 53 percent of the children reported having been sexually abused in some way, but only 3 percent of the cases were reported to the police.
"Children who bravely complain of sexual abuse are often dismissed or ignored by the police, medical staff and other authorities," Meenakshi Ganguly, the director of Human Rights Watch in South Asia, said in a statement.
In response, the government acknowledged flaws in its child protection system, with the head of one government agency saying at a news briefing that in many cases police or court officials did not accept that rape or incest had occurred.
"People have to be made aware of their rights, the procedures to be followed in registering a case in a police station, and insist that they get justice," said Shantha Sinha, the chairwoman of the agency, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, The Associated Press reported.
In interviews with more than 100 people, Human Rights Watch found that the police, government officials and doctors were unprepared to deal with child sexual abuse cases and often made the situation worse by not believing the children's accounts and subjecting them to humiliating medical examinations.
The rights group reported that in four cases, doctors used an unscientific "finger test" to examine girls who had been raped.
"The process is so traumatic that in some cases the children are better off not reporting" abuse, Ms. Ganguly said in an interview.
Sexual abuse of children happens everywhere, Ms. Ganguly said, but in India the official response to it seriously compounds the problem. In one episode, a 12-year-old girl who reported to the police that she had been raped by a man from a politically connected family was locked in jail for almost two weeks, the report found. The police insisted that she change her story, it said.
Activists called for more comprehensive reforms, arguing that the laws and the support system for children should be better integrated.
"It has to be holistic," Hasina Kharbhih, a child rights activist, said in an interview.
Child sexual abuse, she said, "has devastating aftereffects which haunt the victims as they grow into adulthood." She added that the enormity of such crimes was often not acknowledged in India.
One particular focus of the report is the sexual abuse of orphans and other at-risk children at residential care facilities. The rights group said that facilities in most parts of the country were not inspected often enough, and that many privately run ones were not even registered.
"As a result, the government has neither a record of all the orphanages and other institutions operating in the country nor a list of the children they are housing," the report said. "Abuse occurs even in supposedly well-run and respected institutions because of poor monitoring."
India has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that protects children. The rights group noted that doing so obliged all levels of government to not only take steps to protect children against sexual abuse but to also offer a remedy when protections are violated.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.