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Most of the research based evidence on child abuse and neglect comes from developed nations. Less is known regarding the prevalence of abuse and neglect in children from low- and middle income countries, such as India. The only national survey conducted to date on child maltreatment in India was in 2007 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD; Kacker, Varadan, & Kumar, 2007). 

According to this survey, 69 percent of children and adolescents reported physical abuse, 53 percent reported sexual abuse, and nearly 49 percent reported emotional abuse. In addition, nearly 71 percent of the girls reported facing neglect within the family environment. The survey did not assess neglect among boys. However, this survey along with other existing maltreatment studies from India does not allow comparisons of maltreatment rates across nations as no standardized measures were used. In the absence of such comparisons, the gravity of problem of child abuse and neglect in countries such as India often goes unnoticed. 

In this article, I share research findings from my two recent publications related to child maltreatment based on a dataset from Jammu (India). My endeavor is to highlight the rates of child abuse and neglect in India, compare these with existing studies from other countries, and assess the effect of child maltreatment on adolescent psychopathology. 

Is Child Maltreatment in India of Epidemic Proportions?

India is the home to 19 percent of the world’s children, that is, nearly 440 million people in India are under the age of 18 years. This is 5-times higher than the population of children in the US, and is in fact higher than the total population of the US. Based on the MWCD report, this would put the total number of abused children in India at over 200 million. 

More recently, a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (2013), citing the National crimes record bureau figures, stated that 48,338 child rape cases were recorded during 2001-2011 in India. This is an increase of 336 percent since 2001. These findings are just the tip of the iceberg, reflecting the most severe instances of sexual abuse that were prosecuted. Most other incidents of sexual abuse in children often go unreported. Additionally, the alarmingly high figures are limited not just to child sexual abuse, but also reported for incidents of physical and emotional abuse, and neglect (cf. Zolotor et al., 2009). 

Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect in India in Comparison to Other Western Nations

An often experienced dilemma in the assessment of child maltreatment is the variation in the definitions across countries, as perception of ‘child maltreatment’ varies according to cultural norms. These issues are compounded in countries, such as India, where there is no legal definition of child abuse or neglect (except sexual abuse), and where only a handful of research studies exist. Nevertheless, the few studies including the MWCD report, give an impression of the high prevalence of child abuse in India. In a recent study on 702 school-going adolescents from Jammu (India) the rates of maltreatment ranged from 41 percent for physical abuse to 60 percent for emotional neglect (Charak & Koot, 2014). 

The study utilized a standardized questionnaire, the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein et al., 2003) for assessing abuse and neglect. After establishing the factor structure of the measure, findings were compared with existing studies based on samples from the U.S., Canada and Germany. Findings indicated up to 3-fold higher rates of abuse and neglect in adolescents from Jammu when compared with studies from Western countries using the same measure. In addition, gender differences were found on emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, with boys reporting higher experiences of abuse. No difference was found on neglect among boys or girls. 

Noteworthy was the higher reporting of sexual abuse by boys as compared to girls (57.4 percent vs. 34.7 percent), which is contrary to rates and trends depicted in many Western studies, but is in line with some studies from Asia (e.g., Malaysia; Choo et al., 2011). These studies offer a possible explanation for higher sexual abuse rates in boys. They postulate that since boys in these societies are considered to be unsusceptible to sexual abuse, they are allowed more freedom and are supervised far less vigilantly by adults than are girls. The absence of an adult protection for boys may lead to more sexual abuse experiences. In other words, the girls may inadvertently come under a safety net not available to the boys in India. 

The study further investigated the role of parental education on child abuse and neglect. With the mother being the primary caregiver in most cases, the relevance of her level of education has been emphasized in studies from the West (Brown et al., 1998). Of interest was if father’s level of education would play a role in child maltreatment in societies with strong patriarchal ties, such as India, where the ascribed role of the father is of a decision maker and bread winner, and seldom involves direct child-care. In the study on Jammu adolescents, mothers with at least a high school degree were found to play a protective role against child maltreatment, but father’s level of education was unrelated to the occurrence of child maltreatment (Charak & Koot, 2014). 

Presence of Multi-type Maltreatment: Severity Within Types of Abuse and Neglect

The presence of multiple types of maltreatment is far from a rarity, and studies from the West support the co-occurrence of types of abuse and neglect (Clemmons, Walsh, DiLillo, & Messman-Moore, 2007; Higgins & McCabe, 2001). In study 2, assessments were carried out for the levels of severity of abuse and neglect, in addition to the presence of multiple types of maltreatment experiences in adolescents from Jammu. A person-centered analytic approach—latent class analysis (LCA)—was chosen over variable-centered approaches (e.g., regression) in order to classify adolescents into classes or groups based on similar response patterns. LCA yields homogeneous classes while maximizing the heterogeneity between classes. Groups of adolescent emerging from the LCA were then compared on dimensions of personality pathology. 

Of all the adolescents, 14.5 percent had faced one type of maltreatment, 23.6 percent reported to have faced two types of maltreatment, 22.2 percent reported incidents of three types of maltreatment, while 15.2 percent and 12.5 percent reported to have experienced four and five types of maltreatment, respectively (cf. Charak & Koot, 2015). Four distinct classes of adolescents based on emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and emotional and physical neglect were found: Moderate-severe abuse and physical neglect (Class 1), Low to moderate-severe abuse (Class 2), Moderate-severe neglect (Class 3), and Minimal abuse or neglect (Class 4). Classes with higher percentages of adolescents reporting abuse and neglect with greater severity (Classes 1 and 2) reported more personality pathology than the other classes. 

For example, adolescents in Class 1 were higher on conduct problems than adolescents in the other classes. These findings contribute to the maltreatment literature from India, and are also novel in the use of person-centered approach in studying levels of severity within each maltreatment type, and their association with dimensions of personality pathology (compared to assessing categories of personality disorders) in adolescents. 

What Has Been Done So Far In India?

In 1992, India became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which prescribes adherence to securing protection of children against economic, sexual, mental, and physical exploitation and abuse. It further ensures that children would not be separated from their families against their will, provided the environment is conducive for the child’s well-being. Some efforts have been made in this direction, such as the opening of a child helpline in few states of India. 

More recently, the Indian parliament passed the ‘Protection of children from sexual offenses act, 2012’ (POCSO; Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, 2012), which went into effect in November, 2012, except in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Further, although corporal punishment at schools has been forbidden since 2009, the practice has been slow to eradicate in India’s schools. Moreover these recent laws do not recognize physical abuse by caregivers, neglect, or psychological abuse as punishable offenses.

What Can Be Done About It?


Top-down Approaches

  1. The formulation of laws for protection of children in India is a promising step. Unfortunately certain states in India like Jammu and Kashmir—where the sample for the two studies was collected—lag behind in the implementation of these laws. Efforts should be directed towards prioritizing implementation of child protection laws in all states in India.
  2. Training and well-laid out protocols for stake-holders to follow is essential. This would facilitate the state machinery to function effectively when dealing with cases and reports of child maltreatment. Workshops and training programs for the same should be formulated and imparted.
  3. The government and other agencies need to ensure that if institutionalization is essential, children should be provided with a safe environment with opportunities to thrive. Professionally trained personnel, such as child psychologists and social-workers should be an integral part of the team working with the child victims and their families.
  4. Universities and other institutes of higher education, police and medical training academies should develop specialized courses and training programs focusing on child abuse and its consequences, and children’s rights. This would help in capacity-building among personnel who would work closely with the victimized populations.
  5. Research should focus on the mechanisms unique to the Indian context in understanding the mental health related outcomes of child abuse and neglect. For example, low paternal education or father’s non-involvement in child-care may indirectly effect the association between mother’s use of harsh physical punishment and its effect on the well-being of a child.
  6. International organization (e.g., UNICEF) and academia should continue monitoring, encouraging, and emphasizing on the need for stringent policies formulation and implementation, for the protection of children in low-and middle income countries.

Bottom-up Approaches

  1. Interventions at the primary level should focus on generating awareness among the masses—children and their parents, teachers, and school staff, neighbors—regarding identification of abuse and neglect, and the ill-effects of maltreatment.
  2. Group-discussions at the grass-root level among community members should be held to discuss ways to curb maltreatment in the Indian context. Community engagement would hasten the process of changing mindsets (e.g., discussing and highlighting the difference between discipline and physical abuse).
  3. At a secondary level, factors such as low maternal education, presence of domestic violence, can help clinicians to identify at-risk children early-on. Additionally, children reporting high severity and multiple types of maltreatment should be identified as at-risk, and interventions to reduce further harm should be carried out.
  4. At a tertiary level, tailor-made clinical interventions should be provided for the well-being of the child victims.

To summarize, the findings from the two studies based on school-going adolescents from Jammu indicated (i) high rates of abuse and neglect in adolescents when measured using a standardized questionnaire; (ii) boys were higher on abuse, including sexual abuse, than girls; (iii) mother’s with at least high school degree were less likely to abuse their children; (iv) four mutually exclusive groups or classes of adolescents were found based on their experiences of abuse and neglect and related severity levels; (v) these groups/classes differed from each other on dimensions of personality pathology with groups/classes with more types with higher severity of maltreatment, reporting higher on personality pathology. 

In addition, the present article puts forth recommendations for the government and the citizens, to engage in actions directed towards reducing the rates of child maltreatment and its negative impact in India’s children.


Thank you to David DiLillo for providing helpful comments and suggestions for this article.

About the Author

Ruby Charak, PhD, is currently a postdoctoral research associate, Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she works on a NICHD project (PI: Prof. (dr) David DiLillo) assessing risk factors of sexual revictimization in women. She completed her PhD in developmental psychology from the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and holds M.Phil (Clinical Psychology) from the Institute of Human Behavior and Allied Sciences, Delhi, India. Her research interests pertain to childhood adversities, including interactive and cumulative effect of childhood maltreatment on revictimization, and on adolescent and adult psychopathology.


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