Two out of every three children in India are physically abused, according to a landmark government study.
Commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the study says 53% of the surveyed children reported one or more forms of sexual abuse.
This is the first time the government has done such an exhaustive survey on the controversial issue of child abuse.
Abuse of children, particularly sexual abuse, is rarely admitted in India and activists have welcomed the study.
Releasing the report at a press conference in the capital, Delhi, Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury said: “In India there’s a tradition of denying child abuse. It doesn’t happen here is what we normally say.
“But by remaining silent, we have aided and abetted the abuse of children.”
Describing the findings of the study as “disturbing”, Ms Chowdhury called for an end to the “conspiracy of silence”.
The issue of child abuse has been raised in the past by non-governmental organisations, but this is the first time an attempt has been made by the government to document the scale of the problem.
The study took two years to complete, and covered 13 states where 12,247 children (between five and 12) and 2,324 young adults (over the age of 12) were quizzed.
Dr Loveleen Kacker, the official in charge of child welfare in the ministry, compiled the report.
She said the study had revealed that contrary to the general belief that only girls were abused, boys were equally at risk, if not more.
She said a substantial number of the abusers were “persons in trust and care-givers” who included parents, relatives and school teachers.
Dr Kacker said a disturbing finding of the study had been that 70% had not reported the abuse to anyone.
Besides surveying physical and sexual abuse, the study also collected statistics on emotional abuse and neglect of girls.
The study called for efforts to make society aware of the rights of children and officials say the data will help them formulate better policies to protect children.
‘One too many’
The report has been welcomed by child rights activists who say such a study was sorely needed in India.
Roland Angerer, country director of Plan International, told BBC News it was “very important that the government has finally taken up the issue”.
“It doesn’t matter what statistics say. Whether the percentage of abused children is 75 or whether it is 58 is unimportant. Each child that is abused is one too many,” he said.
“It’s important that parents and adults must learn that children are not property, that they have rights too.”
In India, parents are often reluctant to admit child abuse and sexual abuse of children involving family members is almost always hushed up.
Perhaps that is why – as the study shows – more than 50% of the young adults surveyed wanted the matter of abuse to remain within the family.
Only 17% of the abused young adults wanted harsh punishment for the abusers.
Officials and activists say the biggest challenge for the authorities and society is to ensure that children are encouraged to report abuse.
India is home to almost 19% of the world’s children. More than one-third of the country’s population – 440m people – is made up of children below 18 years of age.
According to one study, at least 40% of these children are in need of care and protection.
The country has millions of child workers.
Many are employed in hazardous industries and also in homes and small restaurants, which makes them vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
Last year the government banned children under 14 from being employed in homes and at restaurants to avoid their exploitation and abuse, but millions of children continue to work in these sectors.
India is a signatory to various international laws on the protection of children, but implementation of these laws is often lax.