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1 in 5 children in India have suffered severe sexual harm, including rape.

Sexual abuse is prevalent in India. More than 53% of children have been sexually harmed, nearly 21% have suffered severe sexual harm, including rape.

But it remains mostly hidden. Shame and stigma keep people from disclosing sexual abuse to someone they trust; even fewer people report sexual offences to police. In 2016, just over 36,000 cases of child sexual abuse were reported to police, a mere sliver that severely understates the severity of the problem. Most children remain outside the law’s protection.

Sexual harm often occurs in close trusted relationships. Almost always people who are sexually harmed know those who abuse them–96% of the time–and offenders are often in a position of trust or authority. As a result, the criminal justice process, even when it ends in conviction, divides families and communities, offers no incentive for people who commit abuse to take responsibility for their conduct and fails to meet survivors’ true needs, often leaving them less safe than before the abuse was reported.

When victims report sexual harm, the system lets them down. Some victims choose to pursue justice in the courts, often because they need help and don’t know what else to do. But weak police investigation, long delays, high caseloads and pressure for victims to turn hostile during testimony keep cases from reaching conviction. In 2016, the overall conviction rate for child sexual abuse cases in India was less than 30%.

There is a disconnect between what survivors need and outcomes of the justice system. The law plays a key role in protecting children from sexual abuse. It defines sexual abuse as wrong and collectively expresses that it has no place in society. But to require survivors to seek recourse for sexual harm in the criminal justice system reflects a deep misunderstanding of what they need. They require another choice when reporting sexual abuse: one that better meets their needs arising from the harm.