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    Child Sex Abuse in Rural China Is Still Being Overlooked, Report Finds

    China has made strides in tackling child sexual abuse over the past decade. But crimes are still far more likely to go unreported in rural areas, a new report has found.

    There is still a huge disparity between urban and rural China when it comes to detecting cases of child sexual abuse, with far more crimes in the countryside going unreported, a new report by the nonprofit Girls Protection has found.

    The campaign group, which works to raise public awareness of child abuse, published the report to gauge how much progress China has made in preventing sexual assaults against minors since the organization was founded a decade ago.

    The study includes a review of every media report on cases of child sexual abuse in China between 2013 and 2021, which found that the vast majority of reported incidents took place in urban areas. 

    In 2020, for example, just 9.8% of assaults reported in Chinese media articles referencing a specific location occurred in rural areas. Sun Xuemei, a co-founder of Girls Protection, told Sixth Tone the finding reflects the continued lack of protections for children in the countryside.

    “The fact that the frequency of reported child sex abuse cases in rural areas is much lower than in the cities is directly related to the lack of close supervision in those areas, where both judicial and media supervision is difficult to put in place,” said Sun. “It doesn’t mean that fewer cases actually occur there.”

    But China has also made significant strides in preventing child abuse, according to the report. When Girls Protection was founded in 2013, sexual assault was a taboo topic in China and legal protections for minors were often strikingly lax.

    That, however, began to change after a string of shocking abuse cases in May 2013 sparked public outrage. Stories of a 74-year-old raping and impregnating a 12-year-old girl and a primary school principal raping six minors emerged within weeks of each other.

    Girls Protection was set up by a group of female journalists in the aftermath of those scandals, and the organization has since played a key role in pushing child sexual abuse up China’s political agenda. The organization works with schools to improve sex education, lobbies the authorities to strengthen legal protections for minors, and produces campaigns to raise social awareness.

    Over the past decade, Chinese parents have become far more likely to ensure their children receive sex education, and to take steps to protect their children from potential abuse, according to Girls Protection’s annual surveys of around 15,000 families from across China.

    In 2013, 56.5% of parents said they had never taught their children anything about protecting themselves from sexual assault. By 2018, this percentage had dropped to 22.9%.

    Parents have also become better educated on the issues. In 2019, more than half of parents said they were able to identify whether their children have experienced sexual abuse from monitoring their children’s behavior, compared with 35% in 2015.

    The report also shows that parents have become more cautious regarding whom they trust to take care of their children. More than two-thirds of reported sexual assaults against minors in China are committed by personal acquaintances of the children’s parents, according to the report.

    More Chinese parents appear to be aware of this fact than previously. In 2019, 69.7% of parents said they never left their children in the care of an acquaintance of the opposite sex, compared with 46% in 2015.

    Sun said she had been particularly pleased to see society become more open toward sex education in recent years. These days, schools regularly reach out to Girls Protection directly for advice, which is a huge change compared with a decade ago, she said. 

    The organization’s focus going forward will be to make sure children in rural areas receive the same access to sex education as those in the cities. “Everything is still in the process of changing,” said Sun. “If we receive some donations now, we will give priority to places that are lagging behind. I believe that these presentations and lectures can change people’s minds.”

    China has also introduced a series of legal reforms to combat child sexual abuse in recent years. In 2015, prostitution involving minors was recategorized as a form of rape. In 2021, the amended minor protection law introduced a “mandatory reporting mechanism,” which makes failing to report a case of child sexual assault a criminal offense.

    All Chinese educational institutions have also been ordered to establish systems for preventing sexual abuse, while guardians found to have sexually abused their children are now banned from retaining custody rights.

    However, public awareness of these legal changes remains low, the report found, which could make the policies less effective. Nearly 70% of people, meanwhile, said they were unsure how to deal with child sexual abuse cases.

    It’s unclear to what extent the legal changes have led to an uptick in convictions for child abusers. However, China’s Supreme Procuratorate stated in April that 131,000 people had been charged for sexual offenses against minors since 2018, and that sexual abuse was now the most prominent type of crime in cases involving children.

    In 41% of cases, criminals found guilty of abusing minors were sentenced to more than three years in prison, which is 23.9 percentage points higher than average, according to the announcement.

    For Sun, the priority for the future should be further strengthening the legal system, but also providing better support to victims of abuse.

    “Such cases will still happen no matter how well we do in prevention,” she said. “Then, the big problem left for us is how we should better help these children afterward. This is a very painful issue. There’s still a long way to go.”

    Infographics: Ding Yining; editor: Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: Shijue/VCG)