'Our darkest hour': Behind India's child rape crisis


As protests erupt in India, SBS News examines the growing problem of child rape.

Warning: Graphic content.

A series of gruesome child rape cases over recent months continues to leave India reeling.

In January, an eight-year-old girl was abducted in remote Jammu and Kashmir state, before she was drugged, starved, gang-raped and murdered.

During the fallout, it emerged that two teenagers were raped, doused in kerosene and set on fire in the eastern state of Jharkhand, one of them dying from her injuries. 

New Delhi-based columnist Mitali Saran was unequivocal, writing in a dispatch to The New York Times that "India is sliding toward a collapse of humanity and ethics".

While in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 50 former police chiefs, ambassadors and senior civil servants wrote that "in post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour".

The crimes are some of the most high-profile since the 2012 rape and murder of a student on a New Delhi bus that triggered mass protests and international condemnation.

Indians have once again taken to the streets and the government has now decided to introduce the death penalty for certain instances of rape.

But behind the headline cases, there lies a disturbing trend.

The tip of an iceberg

Figures from the National Crime Records Bureau show child rape is on the rise across India. 

There were 10,854 cases of child rape reported nationally in 2015, while this number rose to 19,765 in 2016.

This means that child rape now makes up about 40 percent of the reported rape cases.

The Indian Express, joining a chorus of outrage, called it a "huge spike in the rape of children".

"It is for the first time that such a sharp increase in sexual assaults on children has been registered," the newspaper said.

A protest against sexual violence in Bangalore, India.
A protest against sexual violence in Bangalore, India.

Prabhat Kumar from NGO Save the Children said the "upsurge" was the result of both an increase in child rape cases and an increase in reporting. But he said the latest numbers are just "the tip of an iceberg".

"(There is a) huge stigma when it comes to reporting sexual offences, due to fear of ostracisation in the family and society and also due to insensitive behaviour among the law enforcement agencies responsible for dealing with such cases," he told SBS News from New Delhi.

A 2017 report by Human Rights Watch found that rape victims "suffer humiliation" at police stations and hospitals across India.

The report said police "are frequently unwilling to register their complaints, victims and witnesses receive little protection" and medical professionals - often males - can subject victims to "degrading tests".

"These obstacles to justice and dignity are compounded by inadequate health care, counselling, and legal support for victims during criminal trials of the accused."

Sexual violence is 'normal'

There's no one cause for India's uptick in child rape cases. 

Material from UNICEF India suggests it could be the "consequence of discrimination against women and of persisting inequalities between men and women".

India is ranked 125 of 159 countries in the Gender Inequality Index, which examines the inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market participation. 

While the United Nations Resident Coordinator in India Yuri Afanasiev issued a statement citing the "everyday normalisation" of sexual violence in India.

A protest after the rape and murder of a child in Kolkata.
A protest after the rape and murder of a child in Kolkata.

"Such normalisation can only be prevented through strong engagement with schools, colleges, communities, state machineries and elected leaders, and a policy of zero tolerance of violence against women and girls," it said.

"Addressing impunity at every level – family, community, institution – is crucial."

Police have also alleged that there could be a sectarian element to some of these crimes.

The eight-year-old who was recently murdered and raped was Muslim while all the accused are Hindus, and it occurred in a deeply polarised Indian region. 

'Hang the people of demonic tendencies'

Local activists also blame various levels of government for not taking child rape seriously enough.

After the recent rape and murder of the eight-year-old, the Kashmir deputy chief minister Kavinder Gupta controversially called it a "small incident".

While some local leaders appeared to offer support to the men accused.

Responding to public pressure, the Indian government introduced the death penalty for people convicted of raping girls aged under 12.

Prime Minister Modi has vowed to hang those "of demonic tendencies who misbehave with (our) daughters".

The law has also been amended to include more drastic punishment for convicted rapists of girls below the age of 16.

But there has been some pushback on the possibility of using the death penalty.

Save the Children's Mr Kumar told SBS News "there is no evidence that the death penalty for child rape acts as deterrence".

"We believe that the focus should be on enforcing existing laws in a speedy manner."

He pointed to the fact that the Indian government brought in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012 but there has been no reduction in cases.

UNICEF India similarly questioned the death penalty, saying in a tweet "we hope this will be backed up by real investments in protecting children, in making schools, public spaces but above all our own homes and communities safe for children".

Additionally, the new legislative changes make no mention of the rape of boys.

Mr Kumar said "sexual abuse of male children is still a myth for a large section of the population. The National Crime Records Bureau does not even generate data of sexual offences towards boys." 

A lifetime of trauma

Mr Kumar also expressed concern for the lack of support that victims currently receive in India.

"If children are made to feel guilty for the abuse, then they will develop a deep sense of worthlessness," he said.

A candlelight protest march against sexual violence in India.
A candlelight protest march against sexual violence in India.

"(And) abused or exploited children are (sometimes) re-victimised if they are rejected by the family, community and society."

"If the process of healing does not take place, the trauma will last a lifetime."

Additional reporting: AFP, AAP

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch