Child Abuse in India: The Battered Child


Article 34 (Sexual exploitation): Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Traditionally, in India, children were valued and pampered. But today the truth is different. Children face all kind of abuses within the family space as well as in public life. Violence against children includes, physical abuse, sexual abuse, pornography, pedophilia, child marriage, child trafficking, child labour, child bonded labour and infanticide to name some. Children get worse affected by communal violence, civil conflicts and natural calamities.

Child abuse includes all forms of physical or emotional ill treatment, sexual abuse and exploitation which results in actual or potential harm to child’s health, survival and development. Abusive acts include a wide range of acts including grave sexual offences to corporal punishment to scolding a child which lowers the self-esteem of the child. Some abusive acts could be

  • Verbally abusing a child

  • Teasing a child

  • Hitting and punching a child

  • Corporal punishment in school

  • Twisting arms

  • Ignoring the child and not listening to him

  • Ridiculing and putting the child down

  • Emotionally depriving the child

  • Touching the child’s private parts

  • Engaging the child in sexual activities

  • Showing sexually explicit material to the child

Child neglect can also fall in the category of child abuse as it would deprive the child, the opportunities for health, education, recreation and safe living. It includes failure to properly supervise and protect children from harm, provide them with education, health care and nutritious food. Neglect can be willful and intentional. But in the context of our country, it could even be an outcome of ignorance or inability of the parents to meet the health, education, recreation and nutrition needs of their children, hence unintentional and situational.

Harmful traditional practices like child marriage, caste system, discrimination against the girl child, child labour and Devadasi tradition impact negatively on children and increase their vulnerability to abuse and neglect. Lack of adequate nutrition, poor access to medical and educational facilities, migration from rural to urban areas leading to rise in urban poverty, children on the streets and child beggars result in break down of families. This increases the vulnerability of children and exposes them to situations of abuse and exploitation (Ministry of Women and Child Development, n.d.).

Over 44,000 children go missing every year of which 11,000 remain untraced. Traditional forms of violence against children like child marriage, economic exploitation, and Devadasi tradition continue in many parts of the country (Ministry of Women and Child Development, n.d.).

Mowli (1992) observed that religious prostitution is practised in various parts of India and Nepal. Devdasi cults are found in Southern India and also practised in other parts of the country such as Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. They derive customary sanction from oppressive upper-caste temple traditions. Pre-pubertal girls, aged between 5 and 9 years, from poor, low-caste homes, are dedicated by an initiation rite to the deity in the local temple during full moon. After a girl is married to the deity by the tali rite, she is branded with a hot iron on both shoulders and her breast. She is then employed by the temple priest. Sometimes, even before menarche, she is auctioned for her virginity; the deflowering ceremony known as udilumbuvadu becomes the privilege of the highest bidder. Religious prostitution is known by different names such as venkatasani, jogini, nails, muralis and theradiyan. Tiwari (2011) points out that the Devdasi practice is illegal, after the Prohibition of Dedication Act was passed in 1982. However, no one pays heed to this law, as many believe that it is part of their culture to continue this act.

According to Thukral et al. (2008), children get recruited to perpetuate violence in almost all conflict regions of India, and are exploited on daily basis. They are trained to use fire-arms and brainwashed to believe in fighting for a ‘cause’. The state of Chattisgarh has been in news for using children as combatants and in other war activities. In Manipur, Chattisgarh, Kashmir and other states affected by armed conflicts, it is the youth that is pulled in. This would also fall in the category of child abuse.

7.1 Definition of Child Abuse

The term ‘Child Abuse’ may have different connotations in different cultural milieu and socio-economic situations. A universal definition of child abuse in the Indian context does not exist. According to World Health Organization (1999):


Physical Abuse: Physical abuse is the inflicting of physical injury upon a child. This may include burning, hitting, punching, shaking, kicking, beating or otherwise harming a child. The parent or caretaker may not have intended to hurt the child. It may, however, be the result of over-discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age.



Emotional Abuse: Emotional abuse is also known as verbal abuse, mental abuse, and psychological maltreatment. It includes acts or the failures to act by parents or caretakers that have caused or could cause serious behavioural, cognitive, emotional, or mental trauma. This can include parents/caretakers using extreme and/or bizarre forms of punishment, such as confinement in a closet or dark room or being tied to a chair for long periods of time or threatening or terrorising a child. Less severe acts, but no less damaging, are belittling or rejecting treatment, using derogatory terms to describe the child, habitual tendency to blame the child or make him/her a scapegoat.



Neglect: It is the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs. Neglect can be physical, educational, or emotional. Physical neglect can include not providing adequate food or clothing, appropriate medical care, supervision, or proper weather protection (heat or cold). It may include abandonment. Educational neglect includes failure to provide appropriate schooling or special educational needs, allowing excessive truancies. Psychological neglect includes the lack of any emotional support and love, never attending to the child, substance abuse including allowing the child to participate in drug and alcohol use.


Child abuse is a violation of the basic human rights of a child and is an outcome of a set of inter-related familial, social, psychological and economic factors. The problem of child abuse and human rights violations is one of the most critical matters on the international human rights agenda (Shweta 2012).

Sexual abuse, cyber abuse, constant and persistent bullying, abduction, emotional abuse, physical abuse, bonded labour, child labour and negligence of the girl child are major problems faced by children. India is found to be the sixth most dangerous place for children. The well-known example is that the country and the world watched in horror and disgust as the remains of 34 children were pulled out of the gutters of a suburb close to Delhi. These were children from the village of Nithari, who were lured by sweets and other platitudes, abused, sexually assaulted and killed with impunity (Suseela 2007).

Sexual Abuse: Sexual abuse is inappropriate sexual behaviour with a child. It includes fondling a child’s genitals, making the child fondle the adult’s genitals, intercourse, incest, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism and sexual exploitation. To be considered ‘child abuse’, these acts have to be committed by a person responsible for the care of a child (for example a baby-sitter, a parent, or a daycare provider), or is related to the child. If a stranger commits these acts, it would be considered sexual assault and handled solely by the police and criminal courts.

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) has been defined as any kind of physical or mental violation of a child with sexual intent usually by a person who is in a position of trust or power vis-à-vis the child. CSA is also defined as any sexual behaviour directed at a person under sixteen, without informed consent (Bajpai 2003).

The Children’s Act 1989 of Great Britain defines sexual abuse as the involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children and adolescents in sexual activity they do not normally comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent, or that which violate the social taboos of family roles. This definition introduces the concept of ‘informed consent’ and ‘dependent’. It is the dependent nature of child and young people that make child sexual abuse a particular problem (Bajpai 2003).

INCEST—Any physical sexual activity between family members; it can include step-parents, upper siblings, grandparents, father, aunts and uncles and brother–sister. MOLESTATION—A vague term that includes “indecent liberties”, such as touching, foundling, kissing, single or mutual masturbations, or oral–genital contact. EXHIBITIONISM—Indecent exposure, usually exposure of the genitals by an adult to children or other adults. CHILD PORNOGRAPHY—Arranging and photographing in any media sexual acts involving children, either alone or with adults or animals, regardless of consent by the child’s legal guardian; also may denote distribution of such material in any form with or without profit. CHILD PROSTITUTION—Involving children in sex acts for profit and usually with changing partners. PEDOPHILIA—Literally means “Love of child” and does not denote a type of sexual activity but the preference for pre-pubertal children as the means of achieving sexual excitement.

Effects of child sexual abuse on the victim(s) include guilt and self-blame, nightmares, insomnia, fear of the abuser or things associated with the abuse (including objects, smells, places etc.), lower self-esteem, sexually transmitted diseases, chronic pain, self-injurious or suicidal tendencies, depression, stress disorders, personality disorders or other psychiatric problems.

Unfortunately, in most of the child sexual abuse cases, offenders are acquainted with the victims, being family members, relatives, neighbours etc. Strangers are the offenders in very less child sexual abuse cases. Hence, it is very essential for parents and school to give sex education to children so that they are able to differentiate between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ and feel free to discuss about it with their parents.

Sexual abusers incite children with gifts of privileges to begin with. They will confuse the child by wrongly presenting the moral standards by saying that ‘it is ok’ to engage in a sexual act. They also tell the victim that the act is a secret between them and the child and that the child should not tell it to anyone. If the child expresses fear, they could play on the fear of the child, threaten her/him or coerce her/him. It is also worth noting that children who are emotionally weak are more at risk of being sexually abused.

Adults should be alert to any sudden changes in the child’s behaviour. There could be sudden emergence of sexually related problems, including excessive or public masturbation, age in appropriate sexual play, promiscuity or overtly seductive behaviour. It is also possible that the child becomes suddenly very quite or withdrawn or refuses to participate with the peer group. The child could look lost in her own world and be excessively inattentive. There could be a dip in school performance or participation in class. The child might look depressed or may even try to run away from home. There could be suicidal attempts or ideation. She may display unusual fears or phobias, may want to be close to mother or even display fear of strangers or of men.

7.2 Factors Contributing to Child Abuse

Child abuse and violence against children has emerged as one of the most crucial and alarming problems in this country. Factors such as growing industrialisation, liberalisation, urban bias, inter-state and rural–urban migration, economic poverty, breakdown of family and community values and support systems have resulted in children being the most marginalised and vulnerable victims (Thukral et al. 2008).

Instead of discussing the issue or guiding children, physical abuse in the form of corporal punishments in the pretext of disciplining the child continues in our schools unabated. As a society, we are quite insensitive to violence against children. Protectors have turned abusers. It is common to find the worst form of violence against children being reported from children’s institutions, where orphans, destitute, children with disabilities and girls have been kept for their care and protection.

Callous attitude of adults towards children is the major factor for Child Abuse. As a society, we turn a blind eye towards children on the streets who might get rebuked or physically abused in front of us. Do we really care if a child domestic help is over worked? Child beggars on the street elicit no reaction from us. It is as if we have become desensitised to the misery of children. A parent who thrashes his child draws no reaction at all and is more of a norm in our society rather than a one-off event. We have to take the onus ON-US.

The chief underlying causes of Child Abuse and Neglect are poverty, lack of education, migration to big cities and large family size. It is obvious that being born in poor families denies in many instances the provision of basic health and nutrition care and educational opportunities. This is a major cause of neglect which could also be called abuse to some extent. Poverty leads to children taking to work which exposes them to all kinds of abuses. Migration to cities in search for work leads to further destitution of children as city life exposes to them to dangers of day to day existence. Migrants live in overcrowded dwellings which are impoverished. Children get exposed here to many inhuman conditions. Substance abuse and STD’s are common in these children.

Theoretical understanding: Parents could be violent or alcoholic which leads to abuse. It is also possible that family culture permits abusing children. Theoretical perspectives point out that parents who abuse their children are mentally ill. The parents need help. In the Environment Model, two factors that interact to precipitate abuse are a violent environment and stress. The violent environment can be found either in society or the family. Abusive parents ideologically belong to that segment of society that approves of physical violence against children in certain circumstances. According to this theory, the violence has to be a result of child behaviour. This model is used to explain intergenerational abuse and those instances of abuse where children are exposed to an environment that tolerates and even sanctions child abuse as a method of problem solving. Social Psychological Model states that for abuse to occur, three variables must be present: A special parent, a special child and stress. The parent can be “special” in a number of ways, including being immature having unrealistic expectations of the child, having poor impulse control and failing to recognise and respect the child as a unique individual. The child can also be special in several ways; “wrong” sex, physically or mentally disabled, “different” from the other children in the family.

Reasons for Child sexual abuse can be very complex. This can happen to any child irrespective of the family’s economic condition. For CSA to happen, the perpetrator must first overcome his own internal conscience which would initially stop him from engaging in this act. Subsequent to this, he has to be confident that he will not be caught/discovered, so he has to overcome the fear of the external environment. It is likely that the child also resists his overtures. He will have to surmount the resistance of the child as well. Children play a vital role in whether they can be sexually abused or not.

7.3 Preventing Child Sexual Abuse

It is of utmost importance to take all possible measures to prevent Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). Information about CSA should be provided to school teachers, panchayat officers, health workers, parents and children themselves. Children should not keep quiet about CSA but tell their parents or teachers about it. Schools should teach children such skills that help them identify dangerous situations, refuse an abusers approach, break off an interaction and summon help. Although it is controversial and not openly talked about subject, it is important that some brochures and material are developed for advocacy and education of children. Children should be allowed to speak. Encourage disclosure and reduce self-blame. A repository of habitual sexual offenders should be maintained at the district level. Register sex offenders, notify communities about their presence and impose long prison sentences for offenders.

Parents are surrounded by messages about child sexual abuse. Talk shows and TV news warn parents about dangers at school, in the home and on the internet. Despite all the media coverage, parents do not get much advice about how to talk to their children about sexual abuse and how to prevent it. Parents should teach children the names of their body parts including the genitalia so that if they want to tell about someone touching them, they have a vocabulary to express the same. Parents should tell the child that no one is allowed to touch their private parts, and if anyone does so, there is no ‘secret’ about it and the child should inform the parents. Children sometimes feel that they cannot talk to their parents. Know the other trusted adults in your child’s life. Spend time with the child. Develop a relationship of trust. Talk in a matter-of-fact way about our body so that the child does not shroud this fact in mystery. If your child comes to you reporting about any sexual abuse, it is important to follow it up. When you empower your child to say “no” to unwanted touch and teach them that they can come to you with questions and concerns, you take critical steps to preventing child sexual abuse.

7.4 Extent of Child Abuse in India

There are no macro-level statistics available on the number of abused children, especially those who are sexually abused, given the sensitive nature of the issue, the criminal and covert nature of these violations and the limited research conducted to date. However, whatever little is available is being shared.

A study was undertaken by Ministry of Women and Child Development (2007), ‘A study of Child Abuse in India’ in 13 states of India. Respondents included children (5–18 years), young adults (18–24 years) and stakeholders. Child respondents included the following five categories of children:


Children in family environment, not attending school,



Children in schools,



Children in institutional care,



Working children, and



Street children.


Data were collected from more than 12,447 children. It has very clearly emerged that across different kinds of abuses, it is young children, in the 5–12 year group, who are most at risk of abuse and exploitation. Here is the summary of the key findings: