HUANG YANLAI was 74 when he first raped 11-year-old Xiao Yu.
He threatened her with a bamboo-harvesting knife while she was out gathering snails in the fields for her grandmother in Nan village, Guangxi province, in China’s south-west. Over the following two years, Xiao Yu (a nickname meaning Light Rain) was raped more than 50 times, her hands tied and a cloth stuffed in her mouth. She was a left-behind child, entrusted to relatives while her parents worked in distant cities. Her father returned home once a year. Told that his daughter was in trouble, he asked her what was wrong but she was too frightened to tell him. So he beat her up.
Her abusers bribed her to keep quiet, giving her about 10 yuan (about $1.50) each time they raped her, threatening that “if this gets out, it will be you who loses face, not us.” They were right. When Xiao Yu finally confided to her grandmother and went to the police, the villagers called her a prostitute and drove her out of town.
Xiao Yu’s story came to national attention after it was reported by state media. At the end of May it formed part of a study released by the Girls’ Protection Foundation, a charity in Beijing founded to increase awareness of child sexual abuse, a crime officials preferred not to discuss openly until recently. The study said there had been 968 cases of sexual abuse of children reported in the media between 2013 and 2015, involving 1,790 victims. Wang Dawei of the People’s Public Security University said that, for every case that was reported, at least seven were not. That would imply China had 12,000 victims of child sexual abuse during that period. “I have never seen this many child sexual-assault cases, ever,” ran one online reaction. “Why is it such things were hardly heard of five years ago,” asked another, “and now seem all over the media?”
China is no exception; it is no longer taboo to discuss the problem. In 2015 Fang Xiangming of China Agricultural University, in a report for the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimated, using local studies, that 9.5% of Chinese girls and 8% of boys had suffered some form of sexual abuse by adults, ranging from unwanted contact to rape. For boys the rate is as high as the global norm, for girls it is slightly less so. Because of the country’s size, however, the absolute numbers are staggering. Perhaps 25m people under 18 are victims of abuse.Chinese pride themselves on the protectiveness of their families. That children suffer even an average level of abuse is a surprise to many. But, as everywhere, children hide their experience. In 2014 Lijia Zhang, a journalist, wrote a first-hand account in the New York Times of sexual abuse at her school in the city of Nanjing in the 1970s. She said it never occurred to her and other victims to report the teacher. “We didn’t even know the term sexual abuse.” Even in Hong Kong, where sex is more openly discussed, a study of university students found that 60% of male victims and 68% of female ones surveyed since 2002 had not told anyone about their abuse. These rates of non-disclosure are considerably higher than in the West. Mr Fang, the author of the study for the WHO, says that if Chinese girls were more open, then the true rate of female sexual abuse might turn out to be as high as elsewhere, just as it is for boys.
In any country, child sexual abuse is hard to measure. China has never conducted a nationwide survey, though it is talking about holding one in the next couple of years. There are many provincial or citywide studies. But as in other countries, researchers use different measures and standards. And there are no studies of abuse over time, so it is hard to detect trends. Even so, there are reasons to believe that children are at growing risk.
First, China has huge numbers of “left-behind” children, like Xiao Yu. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, an official body, and UNICEF, the UN agency for children, 61m people below the age of 17 have been left in rural areas while one or both parents migrate for work. Over 30m boys and girls, some as young as four, live in state boarding schools in villages, far from parents and often away from grandparents or guardians. (A growing number of rural children whose parents are still at home have to board, because of the closure of many small schools in the countryside as village populations shrink.) Another 36m children have migrated with their families to cities, but their parents are often too busy to look after them properly.
About 10m left-behind children see their parents only once a year and otherwise rely on the occasional phone call. “Every time my mother called, she would tell me to study hard and listen to my teachers,” said one victim of sexual assault by a mathematics teacher at a school in You county, in the central province of Hunan. “I could not bring myself to tell her over the phone what was happening.”
How much abuse is inflicted on left-behind children is not known. Researchers complain that schools with large numbers of them often refuse to allow sexual-abuse surveys. But given their vulnerability, left-behind children are likely to be victims of such abuse more frequently—possibly much more so—than average.
Another risk factor is a mixture of ignorance, shame and legal uncertainty that makes it very difficult for children to defend themselves. Fei Yunxia works for the Girls’ Protection Foundation, the NGO that released the recent study of abuse cases. She travels to schools, giving sex-education classes. “No one tells these students about their bodies or how to protect themselves from harm,” she told Xinhua, a government news agency. Sex education in China is rare and never touches on abuse. The NGO says that 40% of 4,700 secondary-school pupils polled in 2015, when asked what was meant by their “private parts”, said they did not know. When cases are reported to the authorities, little is done, either because of legal loopholes, or because officials refuse to recognise the problem, or because they cover up for colleagues.
It does not help that China’s statute of limitations is only two years. Wang Yi of Renmin University says this is too short for cases involving child sexual abuse: victims often remain silent for years. There is no national register of sex offenders, though Cixi, a city in Zhejiang province, aroused controversy in June when it said it would publish “personal information” about major sex criminals after their release to let the public monitor them (some commentators worried about an invasion of privacy).
The lack of well-developed sex-crime laws means victims are often failed by the justice system. In Liaoning province eight school girls aged between 12 and 17 were kidnapped, stripped, beaten, and forced to watch and wait their turn while men who had paid $270 per visit raped them repeatedly in hotel rooms. The men were charged with having “sex with under-aged prostitutes”, a charge that shamed the victims into silence. The law that allowed child-rape victims to be classified as prostitutes was scrapped in 2015. But a women’s legal-counselling centre in Beijing, which had led a campaign against it, was itself closed earlier this year as part of a crackdown on civil society launched by China’s president, Xi Jinping. No wonder that, as a lawyer in the You county case put it, “silence is the preferred solution.”
A shift in moral assumptions about sex presents another challenge. China is in the middle of a sexual revolution. Sex before marriage is more common. The age of first sexual experience is dropping. Most researchers into child abuse think there may be a link between such changes and sexual violence against children, if only because the revolution in mores seems to go hand in hand with changes to the traditional child-rearing system that, through intense surveillance, may limit abuse.
When a country confronts the problem of child abuse it typically goes through three stages, argues David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire. First the public and media become alert to the problem. This is happening. With the help of social media, and thanks to a greater willingness to speak out on social matters, campaigners have begun to organise. Ye Haiyan (pictured), known online as “Hooligan Sparrow”, helped arouse public awareness with her protests in 2013 against the rape of six girls aged between 11 and 14 by their school principal. In the next stage the government becomes concerned and starts to tighten laws. Then the police, social workers and public prosecutors begin to deal with problems on the ground. China is moving into this third stage.
Make them safer
Since early this decade, prosecutors and police have been spelling out how cases of abuse should be handled, from the collection of evidence to support for victims and procedures for separating a child from his or her parents. At the end of 2015 China adopted its first domestic-violence law. It says that preventing this is the “joint responsibility of the state, society and every family”. All this, says Ron Pouwels, UNICEF’s head of child protection in China, means that “China gets it and is determined to do something about it.”
But much more work is needed. For example, there are very few social workers. The government has set a target of 250,000 properly qualified ones by the end of 2020. But only 30,000 take up such jobs each year. Crucially, Mr Xi needs to reverse his campaign against civil society and his efforts to stifle media debate. Further improving public awareness of the problem will need the help of NGOs and a freer press (free, for example, to point out that abusers are often people in authority—Ms Ye, the activist, was harassed by officials for trying to do so). Over the past 30 years, China has enhanced the life prospects of millions of children by providing them with better education and health care. Now it is time to protect them from sexual violence, too.