A spate of headline-grabbing cases involving the rape and molestation of minors has prompted a review of the relevant legislation and school safety measures, and has placed greater emphasis on a lack of parental oversight, as Zhang Yan reports.
"If I had paid more attention to taking care of my only daughter, and had advised her to always be cautious in the presence of strangers, she wouldn't have been sexually assaulted," said Chen Lin (not her real name), whose 9-year-old daughter was repeatedly raped by a neighbour.
"The worst thing is that her mental health has been severely damaged. She tends to be silent and is afraid of contact with others. I don't know when she will come out of the shadows," Chen said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
The case dates back to August 2013, when Chen divorced her husband and moved to Beijing from Henan province to open a small business selling fruit.
Because of the pressures of running her business, Chen regularly left the girl at a neighbour's home, where she would watch TV and wait for her mother to return in the evening. The neighbour, an unmarried man in his 30s, was also a migrant worker. He took the opportunity provided by Chen's absence to sexually abuse the girl several times. The attacks, which took place over the space of about a month, only came to light when Chen discovered a number of injuries on her daughter's body.
In March last year, the man was convicted of rape at Beijing Fengtai District People's Court and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was also ordered to pay compensation of 20,000 yuan ($3,220).
Chen's daughter is just one of thousands of minors - defined as children age 14 or younger - in China who have been sexually assaulted, molested, abducted or threatened with being forced into prostitution in recent years. The cases have attracted widespread public and media attention.
Statistics released by the Supreme People's Procuratorate show that last year national prosecuting departments charged 3,239 people with the sexual abuse of minors, obscene behaviour, or luring young people into prostitution. The figures showed a sharp rise compared with 2013.
Between 2010 and the end of 2013, prosecutors charged 8,069 people in 7,963 cases of "obscene behaviour", including molestation and indecent exposure. During the same period, 255 people were charged in 150 cases of "sexual abuse" - rape - of a minor.
Tong Lihua, director of the Beijing Minors' Legal Aid and Research Center, said that in recent years the influence of unhealthy and obscene online videos has distorted some people's values, and they have sought out virgin girls to satisfy their abnormal desires.
"A lack of awareness among minors, parental negligence, and flawed safety management in schools and society in general have all contributed to the high incidence of such cases," he said.
According to Zhang Xiangjun, director of the procuratorate's prosecution department, few parents are aware of the importance of teaching young children about sexual issues, preferring to wait until the child is 14 or 15.
In addition, primary and junior schools usually provide physical health classes for minors, rather than sex education, which means many children lack awareness of how to protect themselves.
"Because of the lack of sex education, some juveniles may not realise they have been sexually assaulted, and even if they realise that a crime has been committed, some don't even dare report it to the police," he said.
Tong said that most of the victims were younger than 14 and were the children of migrant workers and single-parent families.
He said the perpetrators are usually acquainted with their victims - for example, neighbours, family friends, stepfathers or teachers - and many cases involve repeated abuse over long periods of time.
Schools failing students
According to Shi Weizhong, a senior official at the procuratorate's prosecution department, loopholes in school safety are also to blame. Some schools failed to conduct regular patrols and didn't equip dormitories with safety features, such as alarms and intercoms, thereby providing opportunities for the perpetrators.
"Many sexual assaults occurred in classrooms and dormitories. Some even happened at the teacher's desk or in their offices," he said.
One such case is said to have occurred in November, when a sports teacher at a primary school in the capital allegedly molested two 7-year-old girls during gym classes.
The prosecution department claims that while the rest of the class was exercising, the teacher invited the girls into the equipment storeroom and made them stand with their hands against the wall while he undressed them and then sexually abused them.
It's alleged that over the course of about three months, the teacher frequently committed indecent acts on the girls, and always warned them not to say anything to their parents.
However, when the mother of one of victims discovered injuries on her daughter's hands and asked her how they had happened, the girl reluctantly told the whole story and the matter was immediately reported to the police.
The teacher has been charged with indecent behaviour by the legal authorities and he will appear in court at a later date.
"The suspect is being held on a criminal charge, but his alleged obscene behaviour has caused great pain to both the victim and her mother. Even when she is an adult, the girl will have to deal with misunderstandings, doubts and even criticism, because many members of the public believe that there's no smoke without fire and will say she must have encouraged her abuser. She may have to bear that stigma for the rest of her life," Zhao Hui, a lawyer representing one of the girls, said.
Hong Daode, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said the legislation relating to the sexual abuse of children needs urgent revision. "The priority is to enact up-to-date laws to protect the legitimate rights of minors, and the judicial authorities need to set up a quick-response mechanism to handle such cases and impose severe punishments on the guilty," he said.
He said the laws that protect minors were last revised in 2004, so they no longer provide practical ways of dealing with such cases and the sentencing tariffs are no longer adequate.
According to Hong, sometimes, when cases of alleged sexual abuse of children are reported, a lack of immediate evidence means authorities - the police, prosecutors' departments and courts - are reluctant to commit large numbers of officers and technical staff to conduct further investigations, which can lead to long delays before the start of judicial proceedings.
"Even worse, during questioning, the police, prosecuting departments and the courts repeatedly ask minors for details of the abuse, which forces the girls to recall unpleasant, disturbing memories," he said.
To tackle the issue, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Supreme People's Court, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice issued a joint notice in October specifying severe punishments for sexual crimes against minors.
In May, the procuratorate also released detailed measures of a quick-response mechanism being established by the prosecuting departments, and prosecutors will be ordered to redouble their efforts to deal with the problem.
"We will adopt a zero-tolerance approach to the sexual abuse of minors and attempts to force them into prostitution," Xiao Wei, a spokeswomen for the authority, said. "Once we obtain solid evidence we will immediately arrest and charge suspects."
Zhang Xiangjun, deputy director of the authority's prosecuting department, said national prosecutors will also attach great importance to investigating the conduct of officials who fail to act when confronted with cases of child sexual abuse. "If we discover that government officers have detected such crimes but have not taken effective measures to stop them, and that failure has resulted in minors dying or suffering severe injuries, those officials will be held criminally accountable."
Tougher action on child sexual abuse signaled
He pledged that legal aid and psychological counseling for minors would be improved, and that local governments and relevant authorities would hire qualified psychological experts to provide young victims with relevant counseling.
Moreover, when a child is being questioned about alleged attacks, the public security authorities will make audio and video recordings, which will then be handed over for use by the court so the child will not have to relive the ordeal publicly, he said.
In addition, he urged schools and communities to assume supervisory roles, and to offer more guidance to parents with the aim of reducing the number of offences.
Despite the improved measures, Tong Lihua said the only way to stop the sexual abuse of children is to make them more aware of the threat.
"Minors, who are physically and mentally immature and lack the ability to distinguish right from wrong are vulnerable and easily become targets. It's essential that we improve education to prevent sexual assaults. After learning about all the relevant knowledge and skills, children will have the ability to identify potential threats and protect themselves from harm," he said.