The Ministry of Women and Child Development is being misled by a prejudiced report on child abuse in India, guided by UNICEF and Save the Children, an NGO. The report, which the ministry has accepted to serve as its statistical anchor, has given an exaggerated number of offenders within the family by clubbing neighbours and acquaintances as relatives. The report further floats a false notion that Indian parents indulge in a “conspiracy of silence” and are prone to cover up cases of child abuse. Suranya Aiyar exposes all this in “Save your child from UNICEF: A study of UNICEF’s biased and false claims about Indian parents”. Here is the fourth part of Aiyar’s report.


In this part of the paper, we discuss the falsehoods and exaggerations in the Report “Study on Child Abuse: India 2007” ( about sexual abuse of children in India by family members.

Misapplication of statistical principles and poor quality of data

As explained in Part II of this Paper, since the Report used purposive sampling and other non-probability methods to obtain its data, none of its findings as regards the small pool of 12,447 children, 2324 young adults and 2449 so-called “stakeholders” apply on all fours to the entire population of 44 crore Indian children and their families. Therefore, the Report was entirely wrong in saying, based on its findings that of 12,447 children surveyed, 20.90% reported severe sexual abuse, 50.76% reported other forms of sexual abuse and 53.22% reported one or more forms of sexual abuse, that “across the country, every second child was being subjected to other forms of sexual abuse and every fifth child was facing severe forms of sexual abuse [emphasis supplied].”

The Report was also wrong in presenting its percentage findings on the sample of children surveyed as applying to “every second” and “every fifth” child in the country. As explained in Part III of this paper, the Report had no statistical justification for inferring a uniform distribution of abuse in the population based on the percentage findings claimed for the sample of respondents surveyed.

The claim of the Report that every second and every fifth child in India faced some form of “sexual abuse”, amounts to claiming that every family in the country has one child suffering non-severe sexual abuse and almost every other family has a child suffering severe sexual abuse. An outrageous claim, entirely unsupported by the data, as we will see below.

Misrepresentation and exaggeration of own data

As in the case of the data for physical abuse discussed in Part III, the issue with the findings on sexual abuse was not only a misapplication of statistical principles and faulty data, but also that the Report exaggerated and misrepresented its own data to create a false impression of alarming levels of sexual abuse in the family. The Sexual Abuse chapter of the Report is a study in how data can be manipulated to dress up and exaggerate what are really minor findings.

Conflation of sexual encounters with peers and sexual assault by strangers with sexual assaults by family members, guardians and known adults

The Report’s first step in creating an exaggerated picture of sexual abuse was to, as in the case of physical abuse, have an overbroad definition of sexual abuse. The term “sexual abuse” is commonly understood to refer to situations where the perpetrator is an adult known and trusted by the child. Hence the term “sexual abuse”, rather than the more generic “sexual assault” or “sexual violence”.

The immediate assumption when reading of “sexual abuse” is that the perpetrator is a parent, teacher or some other adult in the private, everyday environment of the child. Also, the term “sexual abuse” is never used when referring to sexual encounters between friends and classmates. This is what distinguishes sexual abuse from other forms of sexual violence against a child, such as rape by a stranger, and from sexual encounters with other minors of its own age.

However, in the Report, sexual abuse is conflated with generic sexual violence, assault and offences by clubbing under the heading “sexual abuse” sexual acts with peers, such as “friends” and “classmates”; by unknown adults/adults not in a position of trust such as “strangers” and “others”, and acts, which though they may constitute sexual offences or be otherwise objectionable, are not commonly understood to be acts of sexual abuse (i.e., involving violation by an adult of a child’s trust), such as a class-fellow or friend showing a child pornographic pictures (the single largest instance of so-called “sexual abuse” of all forms of sexual abuse reported), or forcible kissing among teenagers, or a stranger rubbing their private parts against a child while travelling on a bus. As we will see below, this conflation of sexual abuse with generic sexual violence and other acts has the effect of bumping up sexual abuse figures by several times.

Reported rates of sexual abuse

The Report divides sexual abuse into various categories of sexual abuse, ranging from severe assaults, involving sexual intercourse or oral sex; to other forms of assault involving contact with sexual organs, such as fondling sexual organs (the Report uses the term “private parts”); other contact acts such as forcible kissing and strangers rubbing their “private parts” against a child in a bus; to acts not involving contact, such as exhibitionism, showing of pornographic pictures, and taking nude photographs.

To understand how the overbroad definition of sexual abuse bumped up the sexual abuse rates in the Report, let us take a look at some of the figures for individual forms of sexual abuse stated in the Report:

·         Severe sexual abuse, i.e., in the form of anal/vaginal penetration and oral sex, was the lowest of all categories of abuse at 5.69%, save being photographed in the nude, which was at 4.46%. The Report blames the family for sexual abuse even though not a single child respondent reported such assault by a parent or sibling. For further discussion of sexual abuse by family members, see the sub-section Sexual Abuse by Family Members, below. 

·         The form of sexual abuse reported in the highest proportion was viewing of pornographic pictures, at 30.22%, within which the overwhelming majority of children (66.1%) reported being shown such pictures by a “friend” or classmate”.

·         The second highest form of sexual abuse reported was strangers rubbing their “private parts” during public travel, which was close to the pornography rate at 27.9%.

·         All other (i.e. not counting the rubbing during public travel form) forms of sexual abuse involving contact with the child, were half, or less than half, the rates reported for pornography viewing, except for “forcible kissing”, which was about a third below. More than half the children reporting forcible kissing were teenagers, with the main perpetrators being class fellow/uncle/neighbour.

·         “Friends” and “classmates” were the largest group of so-called perpetrators in each form of sexual abuse, save one, sexual assault, where they were the second largest group 

Two things emerge from the above, first that the claimed sexual abuse rates included things that, whatever objections one may have to them, either did not involve an adult or did not involve an adult having care of the child.

The second point to emerge from the above data is that the overall sexual abuse rates were driven by cases of sexual encounters between friends and peers, viewing of pornography, allegedly “forcible” kissing of teenagers, possibly by other teenagers,.and strangers rubbing private parts during travel. In our opinion, the only reason to classify these things in as “sexual abuse” of children is to give the appearance of parents and other custodians of the child being large-scale perpetrators of sexual abuse, even though the data showed no such thing.

Who is the abuser, according to the Report’s data

In order to understand just what the Report’s data showed about actual sexual abuse, i.e., sexual abuse by a relative or adult responsible for the child, we asked ourselves this question: who is the perpetrator in the various forms of abuse given in the Report?

Although the Report gives overall rates for sexual abuse, it does not do so for perpetrators. The Report states perpetrator-wise rates only within each category of sexual abuse. This gives the impression of the overall percentage of perpetrators being much higher than they are. For example, the Report says that 31% children reported sexual assault by an uncle/neighbour. But this is not a percentage of the total number of children surveyed, but of the subset of children within the total sample who reported sexual assault. Expressed as a percentage of the total number of children surveyed, the rate comes down to 1.75%. So you are looking at an overall rate of 1.75%, which is presented in the Report as a rate of 31%.

In order to better understand the perpetrator-wise figures for sexual abuse, we give below a reworking of the perpetrator-wise percentages expressed in each category of sexual abuse as percentages of the total number of children surveyed.




As the table above demonstrates, the overall perpetrator-wise percentages are, in almost every case, very small compared with the percentages as reported.

Also, by including instances of sexual abuse by peers and strangers, the effect in bumping up the numbers is immense. As noted in the table above, “friends” and “classmates” are the largest group of so-called perpetrators in each form of sexual abuse, save one, sexual assault, where they are the second largest group, being 0.11% behind “uncle/neighbour”.

If you exclude the instances reported as sexual abuse where the perpetrator is a friend, classmate, stranger or “other”, the overall percentage of sexual abuse reported in each category falls by half in each type of sexual abuse, save for the viewing of pornography, where it falls by over two-thirds.

It is noteworthy that in a Report that makes alarming claims about sexual abuse in the country, the highest type of so-called abuse that the data shows is viewing of pornographic pictures with a friend or classmate – 19.97%.

Sexual assault as defined by the Report (penetrative sexual assault and oral sex) is zero to below two percent for all categories of perpetrators. In the two categories of sexual abuse that involve touching the child (penetrative sexual assault, oral sex, and being made to touch the perpetrator), the overall rates of such instances in the data de-segregated by perpetrator, are below 2 percent for all classes of adult perpetrators, except the following categories – being made to fondle an uncle or neighbour: 3.60%; and being made to fondle “other”: 2.03%.

The confusing category of “uncle/neighbour”

One puzzling category of perpetrators named in the Report is the category of “uncle/neighbour”. If “uncle” was used to refer to a male relative of the child, then it is not clear why uncle has been clubbed with neighbour, who not being a relative, belongs to a different class of perpetrators altogether. But it is likely that “uncle” here does not refer to a relative at all. In India, in most vernacular languages, a male relative who is an uncle has his individual title such as “mama”, “chahcha”, “chitappa”, “taaya”, and so on. Typically, Indian children use the appellation “uncle” for grown-ups who are not their relatives.

So it is worthwhile noting that if you eliminate cases of non-family perpetrators, i.e., if you eliminate the incidents of sexual assault reported as having been caused by perpetrators falling in the category of “uncle/neighbour” (assuming “uncles” were not relatives) and “employer”, as well as those where the perpetrator is “friend”, “classmate”, “strangers” or “other”, the figures for sexual abuse in each category show another dramatic fall from the percentages reported: 1/10th of the Report’s figure for “sexual assault”, 1/5thth of the Report’s figure for “child made to fondle perpetrator”, 1/8th of the Report’s figure for viewing of pornographic pictures and 1/6th of the Report’s figures for “child made to show private parts to perpetrator” and “child forced to view private parts of perpetrator”.

Sexual Abuse by Family Members

The data in the Report shows that these are the only results about parents, siblings and cousins found by the Report’s own survey (for working, see table above):

·         Parents: Of the child respondents interviewed, not a single one reported sexual abuse of any sort by a parent. Of the young adults interviewed 0.12% (or 2.88 respondents) reported sexual assault by their father.

·         Siblings: the following table sets out the rates of child and young adult respondents reporting one or other form of sexual abuse by a sibling:


Report’s Findings on Sexual  Abuse by Siblings


Sexual Assault

Fondling of private parts

Being made to show private parts

Being made to view private parts of sibling

Being shown pornographic pictures

Being photographed nude

As reported by child respondents












Exact figure not given (see first table, under this head) 0.93%, including by cousins

As reported by young adult respondents




Not stated


Not stated


Not stated


Not stated


Not stated


·         Cousins: the following table sets out the rates of child and young adult respondents reporting one or other form of sexual abuse by a cousin:


Report’s Findings on Sexual  Abuse by Siblings


Sexual Assault

Fondling of private parts

Being made to show private parts

Being made to view private parts of sibling

Being shown pornographic pictures

Being photographed nude

As reported by child respondents












Exact figure not given (see first table, under this head) 0.93%, including by brothers

As reported by young adult respondents




Not stated


Not stated


Not stated


Not stated


Not stated


So even though the family is blamed for sexual abuse of children, the data showed no sexual abuse by parents, except for a very small rate for the young adults surveyed. The rates of sexual abuse of various forms reported by child respondents as perpetrated by brothers and cousins are either zero or relatively low, being mostly below 1 % for brothers and well below 2% for cousins, except for the viewing of pornography with cousins, which is at 2.74%. Some rates were slightly higher for young adults who reported penetrative sexual assault by brothers and cousins, at 1.03% and 1.85%, respectively.

The Report speculates that higher rates in some categories of sexual abuse reported by young adults are owing to children not being able to talk about sexual abuse experiences. We believe that this kind of speculation is only enlightening of the bias of the authors of the Report, and their inability to look beyond their firmly held belief that abuse is rife in Indian families. The young adult rates were not, in any case, comparable with the child respondent rates as there was no parity either in the numbers, or the categorisation of young adult respondents on the one hand, and child respondents on the other, in the survey. The young adults are also said to have reported facing sexual assault at the age of two years. Since adult memories do not in general stretch to that age, we are inclined to speculate that there were serious faults in the data claimed to have been obtained from young adults. 

Regarding the reported instances of sexual abuse that did not involve touching, viz., viewing the perpetrator’s private parts, having one’s own private parts seen, being shown pornographic pictures or being photographed in the nude, there is nothing to indicate from the Report, or the questionnaire used in the survey, of any filtering to distinguish between instances where the child was “forced”, and where these were accidental (such as being seen during a bath, or while going to the toilet), playful (in a non-sexual way) or between consenting minors of the same age (such as viewing pornographic pictures with a cousin of the same age). Although the Report uses the word “forced”, in the questionnaire the questions are put thus: “has anyone shown you such dirty pictures”; “has anyone tried to photograph you in the nude, without clothes”; “has anyone made you show your private body parts”; “has anyone shown you his/her private body parts”.

The predominant adult class of perpetrator in the Report’s data was “uncle/neighbour” and in each form of sexual abuse the category of non-family perpetrators (assuming that “uncle” does not refer to a relative, see discussion on “uncle” in the preceding sub-section) is higher than the family perpetrators. But the final chapter of the Report, called “Conclusions and Recommendations”, falsely states, in relation to sexual abuse, that “it has also very clearly emerged that the largest percentage of abusers are persons within the family…”

Despite “friends” and “classmates” being the largest group of perpetrators, the Report says that “the study has indicated beyond doubt that schools as compared to other situations are the safest place for children”. We are not here claiming that schools are unsafe for children, but merely pointing this out as yet another example of how the claims and conclusions of the Report bear no relation to its own data.

Significantly, despite the data not showing a single case of sexual abuse by a parent from among the child respondents, and showing only 0.12% cases among young adult respondents, the Report sets up the entire issue of child abuse as one of parents and the “Indian family” being the culprits.

The Report opens with various critical observations about attitudes to sex and sexual abuse in Indian society. For example, that: “The subject of child sexual abuse is still a taboo in India” (a rather weak taboo it must be if the Government is openly devoting one and a half years of research and employing large numbers of outside consultants and NGOs to speak about it); that Indians think child abuse is a “western problem” and that “child sexual abuse does not happen in India”.

From this generalised criticism of ignorant Indians being in a state of racist denial about child abuse, the Report quickly grabs at its favourite whipping boy, the family. The Report says: “The girl, whose mother has not spoken to her even about a basic issue like menstruation, is unable to tell her mother about the uncle or neighbour who has made sexual advances towards her.”

The authors of the Report seem to be utterly ignorant that in many parts of India, especially rural areas of the South, the onset of menses is seen as a coming of age for a girl and celebrated throughout the village with prayers and a feast. There is no silence surrounding menstruation, at least in South India. It is really surprising that no one pointed this out when even the Minister for Women and Child Development at the time, Renuka Chowdhary, was from Andhra Pradesh in South India. Perhaps it is because neither she nor anyone else in the Ministry actually read the Report fed to them by UNICEF and allied NGOs.

The gratuitous reference to “mothers”, who are not anywhere reported as perpetrators in the sexual abuse data, is consistent with the Report’s general anti-mother bias. Recall that in the physical abuse chapter, the Report classified as “physical abuse”, slapping by mothers of their children and we will see how in the emotional abuse chapter, the Report labels as “abusive” mothers who ask their daughters to help in household chores such as dusting and drawing of water.

The Report also makes other gratuitous, and frankly bizarre statements, about Indian families such as alleging that there is “some deep seated fear” that moves Indian families “to keep their girls and their ‘virginity’ safe”. This is particularly incomprehensible, even as a hypothesis; is the Report implying that non-Indian families are eager for their girls to lose their virginity? Is the Report saying that families are keeping girls safe only to protect their “virginity” and not to protect them from sexual abuse?

Dismissive attitude to young boys

Another pattern in the data is that in almost all categories of sexual abuse, the boys report higher rates of sexual abuse than the girls. Even when being forced to acknowledge that this is an issue for boys, and not just for girls, the Report merely says “There is evidence …that boys are equally at risk.” In fact, the numbers show boys being abused in much higher figures than girls consistently over almost every category of sexual abuse. 14.6% more boys than girls reported severe sexual abuse of more than one form; 8.4% more boys than girls reported penetrative sexual assault, 16.8% more boys than girls reported being made to fondle perpetrator and 11.16% more boys than girls reported being forced to view perpetrators’ private parts.

Despite these findings the Report fails to look beyond its formula of the allegedly violent and abusive patriarchal Indian family as the explanation for all abuse of children.


But it is alarming that powerful international NGOs such as UNICEF and Save the Children, and the Government, acting heavily under their influence, should be so casual about findings just because they showed something about boys and not girls. This bias is particularly ugly and distasteful considering that the boys in question were very little, primarily in the tender age group of five to 12, and from humble backgrounds.

Alleged conspiracy of silence about sexual abuse

The Report claims that the vast majority of children who reportedly faced sexual abuse did not tell anyone about it (except, surprisingly, the strangers conducting the survey). Again, Indian society is blamed for this. Time and again the Report says that there is a “conspiracy of silence” about abuse and that it is “shrouded in secrecy.”

You don’t have to be an expert on child rights to know that given the nature of sexual abuse, children may keep silent about it for a host of reasons – confusion, manipulation, fear and guilt. This silence, this inability initially to recognise the manipulation, and then the inability to speak about it, is the issue with sexual abuse cases.

But is it fair to blame society for this? The silence of children, born of the manipulation of the abuser, and the fear and confusion of the child, is not a “conspiracy”. There are any number of instances of parents, especially mothers, including from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, reporting sexual abuse of their children to the police, even when the abuser is a spouse or other close relative. According to the Report, where children do confide in an adult about sexual abuse, the largest category of adults to which they turn is their parents. This indicates that the class of adults children most trust, and to whom they feel confident reporting such incidents are their parents.

Clearly, there is some merit in warning parents about sexual abuse, and enabling them to establish channels of communication about it with their children. More importantly, parents have to be warned to be vigilant. But why could the Report not have made the case for engaging parents and the wider community on this issue instead lashing out at Indian families’ “patriarchy” being responsible for sexual abuse, which their own data showing higher rates of sexual abuse of boys, appears to contradict?

Many Indians are not as open talking about sex as are some liberal people, but that does not imply a “conspiracy of silence” about sexual abuse.  The Report itself is quite coy in the language it uses. “Private parts” is a rather timid choice of words for penis, vagina, anus and breasts.

Moreover, it is not at all certain that the volume and loudness of talk about sex, and the open sexuality of liberal societies, has eliminated or deterred sexual deviance there. If anything, for many of us as parents, hearing near pornographic film songs on the radio, censorship of which is opposed by powerful film industry lobbies, and the ubiquitous advertisements for everything from cars to chocolate through highly sexual images of models, creates a pervasively unhealthy and hyper-sexualised environment for children.

The scandalous “role play” and “story telling” to elicit responses on sexual abuse

The manner in which children were surveyed on sexual abuse displays everything that is wrong about approaching the issue of sexual abuse by targeting the child, rather than adults responsible for the child.

The questionnaire for child respondents sets out fictional scenarios for sexual abuse which the surveyor is meant to narrate to the child. These so-called “stories” include descriptions of an “uncle” touching a child “all over the body”, trying to “fondle” the child, taking off the child’s clothes in a locked room, touching the child’s “private parts” and “doing something which hurt” from where blood came out. In the Report’s section on how to “break the ice” with children participating in the survey, the surveyors are advised to engage the children in “role play” showing a “poor family” with a drunk father trying to get “intimate” with the mother in front of the children.

How was it permitted for such disturbing “stories” to be told and enacted before unsuspecting children as young as five, six, seven and eight years old? Imagine the horror and confusion of the younger children. If such a survey had been conducted in any middle class community, parents would have been outraged.

The Government must undertake to never abuse the trust and confidence of parents and children by conducting such “research”. It has to be made clear to UNICEF, and all child rights bodies, that they do not have the liberty to outrage the innocence and modesty of little children in this manner. We will show in Part VI of this paper, that parents were in all probability not even informed of the kinds of questions, stories and “enactments”, their children were going to be subjected to in the survey.

Not only was this so-called “research” offensive and disturbing for children, it is entirely unclear to us as to why such questioning was required in the first place. This was not an exercise in sexual abuse awareness (which, in any case does not require such “role play” and stories to be told to children), nor was it an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse, where such intrusive questioning may be unavoidable. There seems to have been no point to the whole exercise other creating junk data to make misleading claims about sexual abuse for presentation in the Report.

Sexual abuse in “marriage situations”

The battering of Indian ways is carried out to absurd lengths in the portion of the Report that talks about “sexual advances during marriage situations”. Firstly, it is not clear how this is a sensible choice as a “form of sexual abuse”, or even what it really means.

The Report defines this category as comprising cases of kissing, touching and fondling during marriage and other ceremonies. The only purpose for including this as a category seems to have been to criticise Indian marriages and ceremonies; the Report disapprovingly says that: “in a marriage situation where there is general bonhomie, teasing and jokes all around, the chances of someone taking the child’s reporting seriously are low. In many situations it is also difficult for the child to distinguish whether the incidence [sic.] as meant to be a joke or take advantage of the child.” What exactly is the Report suggesting? That Indian marriages and ceremonies are a covert orgy for incest? Or that children should not be taken to attend marriages and other functions?

Report’s response to young adults and stakeholders

The chapter on Sexual Abuse ends with a gnashing of the teeth on how many of the young adult respondents and stakeholders preferred community or family intervention over police action in cases of sexual abuse of children. Considering that the study was not looking only at rape or severe sexual assault cases, or even at a majority of such cases, but at sexual encounters of a range of severity and culpability, an overall preference for community intervention over police action is not so alarming.

In recent years all over the world there has been criticism of over-criminalising situations, especially where the perpetrator is a minor. Given the insistence of the child rights groups in India (including the ones who participated in the Report) that the 17-year-old rapist-murderer in the infamous Nirbhaya case should be let off after a couple of years in a reform home (as he was a few weeks short of majority at the time of the crime), the Report’s discomfort with the response on community or family intervention once again displays the biases of its authors – any response that did not fit with their own ideas is taken as a sign of complicity in child abuse in society.

Laws on sexual abuse

As in the survey on physical abuse, it is not clear why the survey on sexual abuse was required except to make false claims about Indian families.

There have always been laws against sexual abuse of minors in India. The rules on statutory rape are based on the principle that sexual intercourse with a minor by an adult is a crime regardless of consent, whether real or imagined, on the part of the adult. If the law required changes, the case for this should have been made, instead of castigating Indian parents for a problem that concerns them about their children, atleast as much as any NGO.

Some years ago, a special law against sexual offences against children was passed in India. It is an extremely strict law that some human rights activists have criticised for reversing the traditional burden of proof by presuming the accused to be guilty. On our reading, the new law opens up the possibility of adult care givers being prosecuted for innocent acts such as bathing a child, or cleaning it after it goes to the toilet. We also believe the new law could discourage parents from seeking help for sexually abused children, as Child Welfare Committees have been given wide powers to remove children from parental custody, and keep them in hidden locations, based on mere allegations of sexual abuse, even before an investigation into allegations has commenced, and even where the alleged perpetrator is not in the family home. This is not the place for a detailed discussion about this law. We mention it here merely to point out that Indians have accepted a strict law against sexual offences against children, which indicates their concern and ready engagement with this issue, contrary to the claims of the Report that Indians want to shroud child abuse in a “conspiracy of silence” and that they believe this is a “Western problem”.

Suranya Aiyar was a practising lawyer before opting to become a stay at home mother in 2010. Since 2012, she has been writing and critiquing Western-style child protection laws as advocated in India by UNICEF and Save the Children. On a pro bono basis she has given support and advice to Indian families facing confiscation of their children abroad by child protection authorities. She also writes and illustrates children’s books.

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