More than half of Indian children have been sexually abused, according to a government survey that has prompted calls for tighter laws and mandatory sex education in schools.

The survey, by the newly formed Ministry of Women and Child Development, found that 53.22 per cent of children between 5 and 18 years old had suffered sexual abuse, ranging from forced kissing to rape. The study was the first attempt to document the extent of child abuse in a country where it is viewed largely as a Western phenomenon and where discussion of sexual matters is still strictly taboo.

“We always say our children are safe, we take good care of them — these bad things don’t happen here,” said Renuka Chowdhury, the Minister for Women and Child Development. India is home to 440 million people under the age of 18 — about a fifth of the world’s children.

The survey questioned 12,447 children from 13 of the 28 states in India, and was partly funded by Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency.

Sexual abuse was defined as “inappropriate sexual behaviour with a child”. Severe sexual abuse included rape, sodomy, touching or fondling a child’s genitals, forcing a child to exhibit his or her genitals and photographing a child in the nude.

“Other forms” included forced kissing, making sexual advances to a child during travel or marriage situations, indecent exposure or exposing a child to pornography.

Included in the headline figure of 53.22 per cent were 20.9 per cent of respondents who had experienced severe sexual abuse and 5.69 per cent who had suffered sexual assault. In at least half of cases, children were abused by people whom they knew or who were in positions of responsibility. Most of the victims did not report the matter.

Anu Dixit, a senior programme officer in child protection for Unicef who worked on the survey, said: “It is not just a problem in families that are poor or backward: it cuts across economic barriers.” She said that migration was a significant factor because children are often abused after leaving home to seek work in cities.

In some states, the problem is linked to cultural traditions such as child marriage or making a child become a sex worker as an “offering” to the gods.

Via the London Times