Demonstrators hold a banner with their signatures during a candlelight march for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi on January 16, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

The high-profile arrest of Asaram Bapu, a spiritual guru with a large following in India, for his alleged sexual assault on a child, draws attention to the fact that the sexual abuse of children is disturbingly common in India. The abuser is often someone the child knows, and in a position of authority. The girl who made the complaint was in a residential school run by the guru’s group. Her parents, Asaram devotees, struggled to press charges and ensure his arrest after she apparently told them that the guru had locked her in a room, sexually assaulted her, and threatened to kill her parents if she complained.

In a significant step to address the issue, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act was enacted in 2012. However, as we found in our February 2012 report “Breaking the Silence,” much more needs to be done to ensure the law is enforced. Newspapers have reported three child rapes in just the last couple of days in New Delhi alone.

There has been domestic and international outrage over the spate of sexual assaults in India. But the authorities need to do much more to ensure prompt investigations and prosecutions, which serve as an effective deterrent. Public places need to be better secured, which needs informed community participation and police with the capabilities and resources to appropriately handle these cases. The criminal justice system needs changes to prevent victims from being intimidated, mistreated, and humiliated.

Asaram’s supporters have protested his arrest and blamed the media. But the arrest of a powerful man sends a strong signal that no one is above the law. The parents took the child’s complaint seriously, reported the incident, and the allegations were investigated. As the government proceeds with this case, the young girl and her family will need adequate witness protection and counseling.