Fifth of all children in India 'are abused'

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The Independent Online

A book published in India yesterday has taken on two of the most sensitive subjects in this deeply conservative society - child sex abuse and incest - which it claims are endemic.

A book published in India yesterday has taken on two of the most sensitive subjects in this deeply conservative society - child sex abuse and incest - which it claims are endemic.

Bitter Chocolate includes interviews with more than 100 adults and children who tell their tales in such hair-raising detail that the author censored some sections to avoid falling foul of India's obscenity laws.

Pinki Virani, 41, a Bombay-based journalist who did the study, was asked to write the book by the publisher, Penguin India, but could empathise with her subjects as she too suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family member.

Child sex abuse workers in India welcomed the book in the hope that the debate it is bound to generate will bring the difficult subject into the open and raise awareness among adults and children.

In one earlier study, as many as 76 per cent of respondents had suffered sexual abuse as children - 40 per cent of those by a family member, often an uncle or cousin. Virani estimates that at least 20 per cent of all Indian children below the age of 16 are being regularly sexually abused.

Twelve cases of child rape are recorded in India every day. But Virani believes these are a tiny fraction of the total, as police are reluctant to register cases that don't include other types of sexual abuse.

The close-knit, patriarchal Indian family often masks the scale of the problem as parents disbelieve, deny or cover up abuse so close to home.

Sections of the book aimed at parents faced with such a situation are based on the experiences of UK organisations formed to tackle the problem and counsel children.

As word of the publication of Bitter Chocolate - so called because children are lured into encounters with chocolate - filtered into the Indian media, calls flooded a helpline set up by a Bombay newspaper. "The response has been phenomenal," said Virani. Girls often reach adulthood without telling anyone what has happened to them. Those who do complain risk not being believed by families fearing a scandal. Charu Gargi, a project worker with Shakshi (Witness), a Delhi group, said the instinct was natural. "Anything happening within the family, violence or child sex abuse, the first instinct is to preserve the family.

"Like everywhere, we need a book like this to bring this subject into the mainstream," she said. "Once it's talked about, children realise they are not alone in their suffering."

Women who gave evidence to an earlier study by a group called Rahi (Path) told how their experience of sexual abuse as children still haunts them. "When I told people in my family about the abuse there was hostility, contempt and anger targeted at me. I became an outcast," said one victim.

Virani said that from her work in the UK and the US she believed the Indian experience of abuse was no different from that elsewhere, aside from one crucial respect. "Because we're a patriarchal society we can't talk about it. In the case of child sex abuse we hoped it would go away. India's no different in that respect, except that it has never been brought out into the open."

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