What is CSA?
Child sexual abuse (CSA) takes place when a person initiates any kind of sexual act (physical, verbal, visual or online), or a seemingly-non-sexual act with intentions of sexual gratification, against a child. The abuser can be of any age, gender and socio-economic class. Sexual abuse does not have to involve penetration, force, pain, or even touching. Any act directed towards a child with an intention of getting sexual gratification is sexual abuse. This also includes the behaviour directed towards children on the internet. Indian law recognises and punishes sexual abuse of children online, which includes, but is not limited to creating, storing, sharing and viewing explicit videos with children in it.
In India, a child is understood to be any person below the age of 18 years. Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 (POCSO), children cannot legally consent to sexual relations.
Children of all ages, gender and socio-economic class are vulnerable to sexual abuse. According to the National Study on Child Abuse in India, over 53.2 % of all children in India are sexually abused, out of which 52.94% are boys, while 47.06% are girls.
In most cases, the abuser is known to the child and even the family. Many times the abuser is a family member. By learning the early warning signs and how to effectively step in and speak up, sexual abuse can be stopped before it starts and before a child is harmed. As adults, it is our primary responsibility to prevent child sexual abuse from happening by addressing any concerning or questionable behaviour which may pose a risk to any child’s safety.
Definition of child sexual abuse
In 1999, World Health Organisation formulated a Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention, which defines child sexual abuse as: “…the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but is not limited to: the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; the exploitative use of children in pornographic performance and materials.”
FAQs on CSA
21% of the world’s children live in India (one in five). Within India, 42% of our total population is aged below 18 years (2011 Census). India also has one of the largest number of children who have experienced sexual abuse. 53.22% i.e. over one in two children in India experience one or more forms of sexual abuse before they turn 18. Further, over 20% of children experience severe forms of sexual abuse. Out of the 53.22% of children who reported being sexually abused, more than half were boys. According to NCRB data 2019, out of all the CSA cases that were reported, 94% of abusers were known and trusted people to the children, i.e. from within the family or neighbours.
Sexual abuse is not just limited to physical forms that involve direct touch, but also include verbal and visual forms like sexualized talk, forceful exposure to pornography, and more. Contrary to common perception, any act can be sexually abusive provided the intention behind it is sexual gratification of the abuser. It may or may not involve force, pain, or violence. If an adult or an older child engages in any sexual behaviour with a child to meet their sexual needs and interests, it is sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse can be categorised in two forms— contact and non-contact. Some common forms of contact abuse are:
● Touching a child’s genitals or private parts for sexual purposes.
● Making a child touch someone else’s genitals or play sexual games.
● Putting objects or body parts (like fingers, tongue or penis) inside the vagina, in the mouth or in the anus of a child for sexual purposes.
● Fondling, sexualised hugging or any kind of sexualised touching.
Some common forms of non-contact abuse are:
● Showing pornography to a child.
● Deliberately exposing one’s genitals to a child.
● Photographing a child in sexual poses or nude.
● Encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts.
● Inappropriately watching a child undress or use the bathroom.
● Obscene phone calls, text messages, or digital interaction.
● Exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a minor.
● Masturbation in the presence of a minor or forcing the minor to masturbate.
● Producing, watching, storing or sharing pornographic content of children.
● Any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child’s mental, emotional, or physical welfare.
Internet and child sexual abuse: The online revolution is at times compared to the industrial revolution in a way that it has restructured economic and social lives in the twenty-first century. With virtual anonymity also come unique threats for children, putting them at a higher risk of exploitation and harm. The internet has given perpetrators exploiting children a new medium to network, create child sexual abuse material, share this material, as well as explore new identities under the garb of anonymity. Sexual abuse through the internet can take many forms including:
● Distributing abusive images of children.
● Blackmailing by acquiring the child’s private pictures or messages or by using morphing technology.
● Sharing private content with an intention to seek revenge or harm.
● Grooming a child online for later abuse (online or offline) through the use of chat rooms, bulletin boards and online communities where the abuser befriends the child to gain trust.
● Prostituting a child for later abuse either by the perpetrator themselves or by others.
● Engaging children in cyber-sex scenarios.
● Children being sold online for live sexual abuse online – the perpetrator informs their online “peers” the intentions to abuse a child on a set date and time and these “peers” can watch this abuse occurring through a webcam.
Many times, sexual abuse is a combination of contact, non-contact and online abuse.
To read the UNICEF report on Child Online Protection in India 2016, click here
Perhaps due to the anxiety associated with imagining children going through the trauma of sexual abuse, as well as because of the stigma around the topic, many people find it best to not talk about it. They hope that it never happens to their children. Some common stereotypes that further silence the conversations are:
● It happens in lower-income groups.
● It does not happen in “good” families. Definitely not in MY family.
● My child will tell me if someone hurts them.
● This can’t happen to MY child.
● It is only sexual abuse if it involves touching.
● My child is safe as they stay away from strangers.
The reality is that there is no way of knowing who may pose a threat to the children around us. We know that most sexual abuse comes from trusted people. It is important to debunk the stereotypes and face the fact that children are at risk of exploitation. By doing so, adults can prepare themselves to identify threats and communicate openly with children about their safety. By opening a channel of communication with children and ensuring that they trust adults to help them in any adversity, especially bodily violation, adults can help empower children to recognise sexual threats and act in their own safety.
Child abuse includes physical, emotional, sexual abuse and also neglect. All forms of abuse account for the maltreatment of children. Most child abuse is a combination of two or more forms. However, child sexual abuse is especially detrimental as it may interfere with the typical psycho-emotional development of children and leave a long-term impact on their self-image, health and abilities to form trusting relationships.
According to a study conducted by Melissa Hall and Joshua Hall, (2011), childhood sexual abuse infringes on the basic rights of children. When seduced, manipulated or coerced into some form of sexual activity, it robs children of a sense of control and choice that is central to their holistic development and wellbeing. The dynamics of being violated by someone they trust, and a loss of control over the situation can lead to traumatic implications. Being developmentally unprepared for sexual activity, the natural course of their emotional and sexual development is disrupted. Further, when abuse comes from people who are responsible for the care and safety of the child, it confuses the attachment patterns. Child sexual abuse is often also accompanied by other forms of abuse like neglect, emotional and sometimes physical abuse. Hence, most survivors of child sexual abuse report higher levels of anxiety, guilt, immunity-related health problems, issues related to identity, self-esteem, sexuality and relationship related issues in the longer term.
In simple words, because they can. However, this has been a point of contention for researchers for years. Abusers derive sexual gratification, exploration or a power kick or a complex mix of all, by subjecting their desires on children. Most abusers offend on an opportunistic basis and because children make easy targets. As a society, we weigh the words of adults over children’s. This makes it easy to target and silence children as they do not have any real power in society.
A common stereotype is that those who sexually abuse children are mentally unstable. This may be true for a small minority. The majority of child sexual abusers are people we may have met and are likely to know. Often abusers are respectable members within families, communities or institutions. There is no prototype of an abuser. Therefore, an abuser could be anybody.
There are many reasons children do not disclose being sexually abused, including:
● Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family).
● Fear of being thrown out of the house.
● Fear of not being believed.
● Shame or guilt.
If the abuser is someone the child or the family cares about, the child may worry about getting that person in trouble. In addition, children often believe that the sexual abuse was their own fault and may not disclose for fear of getting in trouble themselves. Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of the perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game. If a child discloses abuse, it is critical to stay calm, listen carefully, and NEVER blame the child.
Sexual activity between family members related by blood or who form immediate family is understood as incest. This understanding may vary from culture to culture. In India, under the POCSO act, sexual activity initiated by a family member towards a child is understood as an aggravated form of assault, as it is the responsibility of the family to care for and protect the child. When those in charge of protecting a child harm them sexually, it betrays their trust and hampers the typical developmental journey. Incest is a very common and severe form of child sexual.
47% of CSA survivors are females and 53% of CSA survivors are males.
According to the National Study on Child Abuse (2007) by Ministry of Women and Child Development, which collected data from over 12447 children, 2324 young adults and 2449 stakeholders from across 13 states:
● 53.22% of all children in India experience one or more forms of sexual abuse.
● 21% of children were subjected to severe forms of sexual abuse. Severe forms are understood as sexual assault, making the child fondle private parts, making the child exhibit private body parts and being photographed nude.
● Both boys and girls experienced sexual abuse. In fact 52.94% were boys.
According to the NCRB- National Crime Record Bureau Data (2020):
● A total of 47221 cases were registered under POCSO in 2020.
● 51.27% of the total reported cases were of children below 16 years of age.
● Maharashtra reported the highest number of cases registered under POCSO.
Before children are sexually abused, they are often groomed by abusers.
Do you know the signs?
Special attention or gifts.
Isolating the child from others.
Filling needs and roles within the family.
Treating the child as if they are older.
Gradually crossing physical boundaries, even in public.
Learn the signs, stop the abuse
Grooming in literal terms means “getting ready”. When an adult decides to sexually abuse a child, they work their way towards gaining easy access to the child and decrease the likelihood of discovery or getting caught. They get the child, and at times their families, ready for the abuse.
Grooming is unique to child sexual abuse. The abuser works patiently and many times, lovingly, towards establishing an emotional relationship with the child and their family to lower the child’s resistance to sexual abuse that follows later. Thus manipulating the child to get confused about when exactly they should have resisted. By the process of grooming, the abuser slowly isolates the child in order to find opportunities to abuse and decrease the possibility of being reported or discovered.
It can be thought of as a gradual, calculated process that entraps children into being a willing part of the sexual abuse.
Below are some examples of grooming behaviour:
● Pretending to be someone they are not, for example saying they are the same age online.
● Controlling a child through threats, force or use of authority.
● Asking the child’s permission (e.g., ‘‘I enjoyed this. Is it okay with you?’’).
● Desensitizing them (e.g., swimming together, showering, wrestling, and dirty jokes.)
● Privileges (e.g., limited discipline, undermining non-offender parent.)
● Giving gifts or attention for inappropriate reasons.
● Befriending them; becoming their confidant, the good listener, pretending to be concerned, sharing dreams, etc.
● Attempting to convince them that they share responsibility for the abuse and that they would be punished if the abuse was discovered.
● Frightening them, “If you tell, Mom will kill herself.” Or, “no one will believe you.”
● Taking them on trips, outings or holidays.
● Openly or pretending to accidentally expose the child to nudity, sexual material and sexual acts.
● Having inappropriate social boundaries (e.g., telling the potential victims about their own personal problems, etc.)
● Apologising and promising not to re-offend.
A groomer can be anyone. The more chances there are for a person to get caught, the more they will groom a child and their family to reduce the discovery of abuse. Most times, grooming is involved when the abuser is a family member. Know more.
Grooming is a process. It begins when the predator chooses a target area. They may visit places where children are likely to go: schools, shopping malls, playgrounds, parks, and the like. They may work or volunteer at businesses that cater to children. Other predators strike up relationships with adults who have children in the home— single-parent families make particularly good targets.
A predator will usually introduce secrecy at some point during the grooming process. Initially, secrecy binds the victim to the predator: “Here’s some candy, but don’t tell your friends because they’ll be jealous.” “Don’t tell your mother because she won’t like you eat sweets between meals.” Later on, secrecy joins hands with threats: “If you tell your mother what happened, she’ll hate you. Or, “it’ll kill her.” Or, “I’ll kill her.” Or, “I’ll kill you.”
Watch this video to learn more about the grooming process.
Experiencing child sexual abuse can be devastating for survivors. CSA has a significant negative and pervasive psychological impact, both in the short-term and in the long-term.
Many people believe that an act has to be violent to be abusive. This is a stereotype and only contributes to the silence kept around the issue. The impact of sexual abuse differs for each survivor, and is determined collectively by the trauma of the act, relationship with the abuser, a sense of control over stopping abuse, whether (or not) there was a disclosure, and the response of stakeholders to the disclosure.
Short term Impact
● Physical signs: bruises, injuries, marks.
● Regressive behaviours (e.g., thumb-sucking and bed-wetting in older children).
● Sleep disturbances.
● Eating problems.
● Behaviour and/or performance problems at school, and unwillingness to participate in school or social activities.
● Sudden and drastic behavioural change.
● Development of specific fears.
Long term Impact
Long-term impact can be wide-ranging:
● Self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse.
● Mood disorders, especially depression.
● Anxiety attacks.
● Auto-immune health problems.
● Sleeping disorders.
● Difficulties in forming healthy adult relationships.
● Anger issues (directed towards the abuser or the caregiver for failing to protect them, or towards themself for not being able to stop the abuse).
● Experience difficulty in trusting others.
● Shame, guilt, self-blame or other feelings of inferiority.
● Body image issues and eating disorders.
● Children who have experienced sexual abuse often have higher rates of revictimization (later sexual assaults) than non-victims.
CSA often involves a breach of trust and a feeling of exploitation. This may contribute to interpersonal difficulties and disruption in intimate connections. Survivors of child sexual abuse have reported higher levels of relationship breakdowns, including separation and divorce. Further, the survivors also show lower levels of satisfaction with their existing intimate relationships.
Sexual abuse in children may affect the development of their sexual identity and their belief that the world is a safe place and others are trustworthy. It is this disruption that may cause lifelong insecure and disorganised attachments.
In 2012, The Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO Act, 2012) was passed in the Parliament. Before this act, the legal recognition of child sexual abuse was limited to peno-vaginal penetrative assault. Under the POCSO Act, we now have a very strong legal framework that defines child sexual abuse and different forms of abuse— contact and noncontact. Following are the special features of the Act:
Defines child sexual abuse:
The act categorises different forms of sexual abuse into penetrative and non-penetrative assault, as well as sexual harassment and pornography. Further, the act deems a sexual assault to be “aggravated” under situations such as when the abused child is mentally ill, or when the abuse is committed by a person in a position of trust or authority. This includes family members, police officers, teachers, or doctors. People who traffic children for sexual purposes are also punishable under the provisions relating to abetment in the Act. The Act prescribes stringent punishment graded as per the gravity of the offence, with a maximum term of rigorous imprisonment for life, and a fine.
Special courts and fast-track judgement of CSA cases:
POCSO provides for special courts that are required to conduct the trial in camera and without revealing the identity of the child. Hence, the child may have a parent or other trusted person present at the time of testifying and can call for assistance from an interpreter, special educator, or other professional. Further, the child is not to be called repeatedly to testify in court and may testify through video conferencing. It also stipulates that a case of child sexual abuse must be completed within one year from the date the offence is reported. The special courts also determine the amount of compensation to be paid to a child who has been sexually abused, so that this money can then be used towards the child’s medical treatment and rehabilitation.
The POCSO Act casts the police in the role of child protectors during the investigative process. It is the responsibility of the police personnel receiving a report of sexual abuse of a child to make urgent arrangements for the care and protection of the child, such as obtaining emergency medical treatment for the child and placing the child in a shelter home, should the need arise. The police are also required to bring the matter to the attention of a Child Welfare Committee (CWC) within 24 hours of receiving the report, so the CWC may then proceed where required to make further arrangements for the safety and security of the child.
The POCSO Act mandates that every adult must report sexual offences. The Act casts a legal duty upon every person who knows that a child has been sexually abused to report the offence. In failing to do so, they may be punished with six months imprisonment and/or a fine.
Read the POCSO guidelines