Secular Humanism

India’s Problem with Child Abuse

A majority of people growing up in India would have, like I did, experienced child abuse to some degree, ranging from being beaten for perceived transgressions to emotional abuse including being isolated, dehumanized, constantly belittled and being told one will never be good enough. Many of my own experiences only constitute anecdata, and are backed up to a limited degree by the experiences of others I know that I’ve seen firsthand, but the evidence does go beyond.There is a substantial body of statistical evidence from a reasonably large nationwide survey carried out by the  Women and Child Development Ministry in 2007, featuring more than 12,000 children, that suggests rates of emotional abuse are roughly 50%, sexual abuse 50% and physical abuse 66% [1]; a staggeringly large number.

Children playing

Children playing in India. A boy on a tricycle pedals in the foreground, another boy (also on a tricycle) and a girl right behind him. Behind them, a girl sits on a broken-down wall, reading a book.

The consequences of abuse

I experienced years of abuse leading me to present with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the most devastating consequence, but with a host of other related psychological issues that are peripheral in terms of medical terminology but nonetheless greatly impair social functioning. My abuse involved being subjected to constant judgement against unrealistic expectations, the constant belittling of what I did achieve, and being beaten quite frequently – I was beaten for getting the date of a science exhibition wrong, which only led to me making a lego space shuttle too early, for instance, and the accusation that precipitated the abuse was that I’d dared lie to them, when I’d simply got it wrong – people make mistakes and you don’t assault them for it.

I was beaten badly and pinned to the floor for loud protestations following criticism for below-par exam results in grade 8 (they were 78%, go figure). Of course, loud protestations at what might have been otherwise fair criticism was also a hallmark of battered self-esteem following years of being deprived of it. The worst instances of abuse were public; I was beaten up at Sringeri for refusing to take my vest off before getting into the temple and was threatened with being handed over to the policemen that were nearby. I was also splashed with cold water after being dragged off to the bathroom by an uncle in the presence of a gathering of relatives for an angry outburst. The worst effects of all that abuse went beyond the momentary pain of the beatings – it was internalisation of the assertion I could never be good enough, and of the tendency to hold myself to impossibly high standards to try and counter that, and then as a consequence I had to pretend to be infallible and when there was criticism, fair or not, it led me to break down, hyperventilate regularly and often be uncouth.

If that happened at home I’d be silenced with utterances like “What will the neighbours think of you?” when the precipitating triggers were the abuse I received. The fact that I went through an eight year period of bullying for urinary incontinence hardly helped matters with the precarious state of my self-esteem.  In the end I stonewalled much of it to cope, until I travelled to the UK, experienced far more affection and support from friends and strangers alike, and felt betrayed by it all, and a return to India for a brief period earlier this year triggered flashbacks of the abuse and I’ve since had to regularly grapple with not only the anxiety and depression that can accompany PTSD, but also feelings of betrayal, migraines and occasionally, nightmares.

It’s gotten to the point where it has started to threaten the integrity of my best friendship, which was one of the strongest sources of support I’ve had in countering my condition. I’ve found myself dragging myself from one therapy session to another, with lack of social contact/affection and isolation being a recurrent trigger that brings about panic attacks and flashbacks.  These effects – PTSD, depression, additionally risky behaviour, low self-esteem and suicidality are all traits that are significantly associated with non-sexual child abuse, and time and again show up across a panel of studies on the effects of abuse, which are reviewed in [2], and perhaps even more alarmingly, it is emotional abuse; insidious, imperceptible to external observers, and easily dispensable, that is associated with the most exacerbated risks of the aforementioned conditions and a range of other mental health disorders.

There are fundamental scientific and medical grounds to oppose physical and emotional child abuse, along with the irrationality of some of the permissive moral and ethical attitudes that contribute to the widespread nature of this phenomenon.

The role of irrational assumptions in perpetuating abuse

I’m afraid I will have to indulge in a bit of writing solely based on personal observations here, subject to further corroboration with the experiences of others, for hard data is difficult to come by, yet. I have seen patterns of behaviour that are culturally and behaviourally entrenched that serve to firstly condition children to a position of subordination by default, and secondly, render them vulnerable to socially accepted abuse.

Age, generally speaking, is an asset in Indian society, especially when those that lack age-privilege, as I call it, are on the receiving end; the cultural practice of greeting older people by bending down and touching their feet is a concretised expression of that privilege, which is reinforced by the constant refrain that “one should listen to what elders say”. This is very similar to societal norms that condition women to be meek and submissive in Indian society, like the assumptions that women must speak softly, that they are delicate and shouldn’t be beaten like boys should be and so on, only that the objective is to render children subservient to authority, with age as a proxy.

It is in this context that some tend to find the very act of children asserting themselves shocking and react with violence and intimidation to reassert that privilege; personally speaking my abuse followed a pattern – I used to be beaten first and would retaliate, and be beaten further until I was subdued  – the underlying principle being it is alright to physically assault people as long as they were younger but for the trend to be reversed was a grave crime against all of humanity. Of course, even when there isn’t physical violence involved threats and intimidation are regularly used – an oft heard one is threatening children with being sent off to boarding school where they’ll apparently be treated far worse than at home – vicissitudes that are used to justify appalling treatment in the first place.

This conception, I found, extended to people who were very young adults countering much older adults;  I found myself being assaulted publicly in India when I was 19 or thereabouts following a bicycle crash for daring to suggest it hadn’t been my fault – for I nearly had someone crash into me before I crashed into a watermelon cart, and the assaulter wasn’t even the cart-owner, but some passer-by who took it upon himself to intervene while yelling homophobic slurs in the middle of everything. In any civilised country he’d have been in prison, but I was cornered and threatened with being handed over to the police, and in a country where police-led torture is prevalent [3],[4] I just decided to weather the storm, to the point of bowing my head in pretend-shame when I was asked to. The underlying point I’d like to put forth is that differences in age are associated with the degree of intrusiveness socially sanctioned into personal agency.

Traditional sayings like “Dandam dashagunam” (beatings are tenfold more effective than verbal chastisement, if I have my Sanskrit correct) further serve as cultural encapsulation of those attitudes. There is also, rather sickeningly as I found out, a certain level of glee associated with putting those impudent children in place, reflected in jokes about things that ranged from schools that were stricter on their students to about how relative x taught child y a lesson for not doing z, even when z happened to be 15; not that abuse is any more acceptable when the victims are younger. This was coupled to arguments that they were free to treat me as they wanted because they were looking after me; almost like taking care of a child entitles you to treat a person like property.

The indoctrination of children is often completed with other two bastions of irrationality; subservience to religion and to teachers, who again rely on age to support claims of knowledge that don’t always agree with reality, aptly summarised by another Sanskrit string of words that establishes things that ought to be respected in Indian culture and society “Maata, Pita, Guru, Deva” (Mother, Father, Teacher and God).

Additionally, my confrontation of my abusers about it recently elicited a host of different responses, including “If you hadn’t been stubborn I wouldn’t have beaten you”, “You’re an adult now, and should get over it”,  and when I had withdrawn into a shell, a very irritable shell at that, at the height of my PTSD in India, I was told “Everyone beats and scolds their children, why is it only a problem for you?” as if I’d somehow willed it on myself despite, and not because of, the abuse I had put up with. The last assertion, particularly, betrays a lack of knowledge about lots of medical problems where some degree of stochasticity is involved – abuse might not affect everyone to the same degree, but that doesn’t mean the presumption there are no effects and it is therefore acceptable is valid.

It isn’t difficult to move on from that point to see what underlies the erroneous reasoning that allows abuse to persist on such a widespread level. Firstly, it is irrational to associate age with being right or knowledgeable per se. Secondly, the assumption that children are lesser beings, as a consequence of conflating age with wisdom and authority and the consequent denial of agency to children needs to be challenged. Ideally, discourse would extend to challenging the social practices and behaviours that drive unrealistic expectations which can, apart from indirectly contributing to abusive environments, by themselves stifle personal development; a prominent cultural example is the obsession with grades as a measure of more than recall on a test – the association of academic achievement with self-worth and/family honour is responsible for a considerable number of exam-related suicides in India [5], extending sometimes to the families of those writing exams [6].

A fuller discussion of child abuse for what it is and why it is detrimental, accompanied by the necessary legal, political and social changes that make acting on that realisation possible, is imperative. Challenging prevalent cultural memes that dictate that abusive behaviour be considered part of a loving upbringing of children (parallels to “spare he rod and spoil the child”, for instance) will be, in my opinion, an essential part of that.  The development of a support network for victims and a system to undertake preventative work with parents or other people who perpetrate the abuse of children simply because it happens to be the social norm, in combination with legal penalties for child abuse, with due emphasis on the protection of victims, are objectives I believe to be worth striving for as a rational, and humanistic, cause.









A fuller list of academic references related to trauma resulting from child abuse in adulthood may be found as citations in this paper

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  • Thanks for writing this. I remember some truly sadistic teachers in my school, who used to hit kids like… well, sadists, basically. Years later I saw one of them, at the British embassy of all places. He was a frail old man then. I really wanted to go up to him and ask him “why” (and yes I wanted to assault him too). Your point that “the assumption that children are lesser beings, as a consequence of conflating age with wisdom and authority and the consequent denial of agency to children needs to be challenged” is spot-on.

  • Very well written and i could empathise a lots of incidents in your life with mine…my withdrawn behavior and other mood swings which i sometimes feel is due the intense non sexual child abuse during my growing up years especially from my father and brother…although my father is no more the pain of the abuses and insults still prick me! my brother is even worse and i felt very helpless when he beat his little kids for “disciplining” at the age of 2-3.
    thanks for writing

  • Good article. It strikes at the very root of a common, unacknowledged problem in India. However, I feel that the solution lies not in convincing the abusers to stop, rather in taking control of the childrens’ lives away from them. Unfortunately, given the sad state of our Govt. chidren’s homes/social services, this will remain a pipe dream for decades to come, as this is the normal behavioural pattern even for 20-something parents.

  • This is a very interesting and helpful article and even if it is written based on personal experience, I could identify with some events in my own childhood and adolescence that could be psychologically scarring.

    I am yet to read this article fully, which I surely mean to do. Now as a parent I find many things of note in this that I need to be cautious and mindful (along with my spouse) when we come across while dealing with and counseling our children especially on their academic track record and progress.

    Unwittingly we may be guilty of abuse of our own children. Very timely reminders and pointers indeed.

  • Good article.

    ** Age, generally speaking, is an asset in Indian society, especially when those that lack age-privilege, as I call it, are on the receiving end; the cultural practice of greeting older people by bending down and touching their feet is a concretised expression of that privilege, which is reinforced by the constant refrain that “one should listen to what elders say”.**i

    This is very true. Respecting elders is one of the reasons why lot of bad ideas are difficult to get rid off.

  • There are, of course, situations in which a parent cannot help but use force of some kind. If your kid is running around in a store, toppling merchandise left and right, then some form of force to restrain him or her is not out of line.

    Indian child abuse, however, usually goes above and beyond that, and physical punishment is meted out as revenge for things like “talking back” or what not. This principle of hitting children as a form of vengeance is aptly illustrated in the article:

    I used to be beaten first and would retaliate, and be beaten further until I was subdued – the underlying principle being it is alright to physically assault people as long as they were younger but for the trend to be reversed was a grave crime against all of humanity.

    Great article.

    • I would add that people who don’t retaliate are being trained to sit down and take whatever atrocities people commit upon them later in life.

  • My deepest sympathies to the author of this article. I have had the benefit of being born and raised in Britain and did not suffer hardly any cultural abuse as the author described. Despite that, I was aware of age related prejudice in Indian culture. It finally clicked in my head when at around that age of about 12, In the 1960s, I saw a banner in a local Indian temple saying something like “Respect your elders”. Well I thought, should not the elders also respect the children? I soon worked out that it was just a form of cheating. It is something elders say when they know they have a flawed, or lost an argument. Obviously when flawed or bad arguments have a strong voice, all of civilisation suffers. Since then, whenever I talk to children about respecting elders, I say to them, that your “elders” are cheating. Respect needs to be earned, otherwise it is just a bribe.
    The people in India might ask, what would I a Brit, know about India’s child abuse in India? Obviously not that much, Much rather I would offer some useful strategies. First and foremost, Instead of withdrawing respect from your elders, give equal respect to younger people. When first meeting them, offer to shake hands. Address them by their proper name and title and ask them what they would like to be called, then do so. Treat all boys/girls/men/women absolutely equally at all times. That is the easy stuff. The hard stuff is when you see a parent/elder unfairly hitting a child. demand that stop. How you actually do it and what words to say will be different and difficult for each situation. But from these little steps, we can get to “Respecting everyone”.


    • **A snippet of a conversation on America’s problem with child abuse and a certain political wing’s unwillingness to treat it as a problem:Sean Hannity’s defense of Adrian Peterson, The Colbert Report**

      Not sure if Sean is making an excuse for his parent’s behavior or buying some form of insurance in case he happens to hit his kids in the future.

  • Just about the sanskrit saying. Like a lot of things in our culture, is original meaning has been warped for selfish purposes. Kind of the same thing that happened to the latin proverb “blood is thicker than water.” The latin proverb also has the opposite meaning.

    This is the actual meaning: “Viswaamitrecha vaardhakye raatrou apsu kardame, andhe sarpecha kreedecha dandam dashagunam bhavet”

    “First use is to repulse an attack by a Bird. Bird attacks are common in villages, especially when you are carrying some corn or fish etc. Second use is to threaten and protect against Dogs. Third is to use it as a weapon against an enemy attack. Fourth use is as a support stick in Vardhakya or old age. Fifth use is in raatri or nights, as a handy weapon while walking in the darkness. Noise made by beating on the ground with the stick makes others aware of a moving person and also drives animals away. Sixth use is in Apsu meaning water. When crossing a river or stream a stick is used as a means of finding out the depth of water at every step. Seventh use is in kardame or while negotiating a swamp or quicksand. Eighth use is by the blind as a support. Ninth use is while dealing with sarpa or snakes. Tenth use is in kreeda or sports and games.”


  • I’m reading this article 4 years after it was posted and I really hope the author is doing better. You see a lot of Indians in the US suffering from personality/self-esteem issues and you can can’t help but wonder if they can be traced back to abuse at the hands of parents and society.

    I have this memory burnt in my brain of my mother breaking the bedroom door to come beat me, when I was 8 years old. I would go hide in the room and lock it from inside cause I was so scared, but she definitely knew how to make a statement. She would then keep beating me till I lay still, if I retaliated the beating would get worse, so I just accepted it and kept wishing I would just die and it would all just end. The beating continued till I was old enough to hit her back. I just lost my temper one day when she was beating me and kicked her hard in the stomach. I felt terrible, but my mother never hit me after that. The verbal abuse continued, though, she called me a prostitute, motherfucker (ironically), fatherfucker, hindi …you know the works. I swore back at her, of course, for which I felt very guilty, but my therapist once told me, if you wouldn’t be angry you would be I guess I should be glad I was angry. All of this for not studying or supposedly, misbehaving. I was a smart enough student for most part and don’t remember doing anything that terrible that would justify this treatment. I guess even criminals get treated better in western countries.

    My father was mostly just gone, traveling on work, which was apparently far more important than his family. He would mostly just ignore me even when he was around and ill treat my mother. He wouldn’t physically beat her, but just swear at her and treat her like crap, which she also reciprocated at times. All this behind closed doors of a seemingly happy family. I remember my mother obsessively locking all doors when I was getting beaten or when ugly words and abuses were being thrown around, but I can’t help but wonder if the neighbors knew anyway. I remember once my mom’s friend complained about me to my mother, but then she ran over to my place an hour later cause she was afraid my mom would beat me too much, so I guess everyone kinda knew it was happening.

    I’m in a happy marriage today. I have a patient, kind and loving husband. We’re both quite successful too. For most part, I’ve forgiven my mother. I guess she was deeply unhappy and unequipped to live life as a single parent, which for all intensive purposes she was. She gets very emotional when I bring up the abuse. She’s apologized for it, but justifies it sometimes by saying it happens to everyone in India and for a brief period I treated her badly when I moved to the US, which probably was true to an extent ( I never physically hurt her, but didn’t want her to be around too much and bug me about getting married). But now we’re okay now. It’s harder to talk to my dad cause he’s very stubborn and thinks that everything he does is right. After a few viscous arguments, I stopped trying to give him my perspective on things, but again I’ve accepted that. But despite all this I can’t completely get over the trama. Every once in awhile I remember the pain and humiliation ..the helplessness and cannot help but wonder why two people who loved me (I know they did and showed it on several occasions as well), put me through this. Would I be a different person, if this wouldn’t have happened? Would I feel more whole, more self confident, less worthless?

    Also, I can never tell my husband completely what happened. That would make him dislike my parents, and I still want to care for them as much as I can. I tell my husband snippets of the abuse, and not surprisingly enough, like every other Indian, he’s had abuse of his own. His mother abused him physically and emotionally for not studying and being ‘useless’ as well. He seems to be less affected by this than I am, at least superficially.

    To conclude my really long rambling, I really wonder how long this will go along. I know that we have more severe issues, with half the country being so poor. But, if the supposedly fortunate half is still producing so many broken adults, how can we fix anything. For now my husband and I are scrambling through our busy lives, working harder everyday to fill a void that never gets filled. We do plan on raising two happy and whole children though, so maybe we can do our part in creating two healthy, confident Indian children.

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