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A number of high-profile cases have prompted a review of school safety measures and parental oversight, as Zhang Yan reports. 

"If I had attached greater importance to looking after my daughter and taught her how to protect herself in the presence of the strangers, she wouldn"t have been sexually abused," said Song Hui (not her real name), whose child was repeatedly molested by a neighbor.

During the day, the 6-year-old girl attended a kindergarten, but at night she was usually left on her own while her mother was at work.

"I am deeply worried that her mental health has been seriously hurt, because she tends to be silent and refuse contact with other people," Song said.

"I can"t imagine how it will affect her in future life, or when she will really start to come out from the shadows."

The problem started in June last year. The family originally lived in North China, but when Song and her husband divorced, she took her daughter to a city in an eastern province where she had found a job running a shoe store. They knew almost no one in their new home.

The store occupied most of Song"s time and she often didn"t finish work until late in the evening, meaning the daughter was usually home alone.

Their neighbor, an unmarried man in his 30s, noticed Song"s frequent absences, and one evening as the girl played in the yard, he gave her candies and chocolate to lure her into his rented home.

Exploiting the opportunities offered by Song"s absence, the man abused the girl frequently over the course of about a month. Upset, the girl eventually told her mother, who reported the matter to the police.

In August, the local district people"s procuratorate charged the man with gross indecency, and in October, he was convicted by the local district people"s court and sentenced to 10 months in prison.

The case was one of thousands last year in which minors-defined as children age 14 or younger-were sexually assaulted, molested, abducted or forced into prostitution.

The situation attracted widespread attention from the public and media both at home and abroad.

Loopholes

A number of loopholes in school safety management and parental supervision have recently resulted in a sharp rise in the number of cases of sexual abuse or molestation of juveniles, according to Zheng Xinjian, head of a special office at the Supreme People"s Procuratorate that deals with cases involving minors.

Statistics provided by the procuratorate show that between January last year and April, prosecuting departments nationwide charged 60,000 people with infringing juveniles" rights through abduction, physical injury, sexual abuse or parental desertion.

Rape, molestation and organized child prostitution accounted for a large proportion of the cases, and in some parts of the country, the number could be as high as 60 percent, according to the procuratorate.

"Children are the country"s hope and future, but sexual assaults have seriously damaged their physical and mental health. In response, we have adopted a zero tolerance attitude towards these crimes," Zheng said.

He added that the influence of pornographic videos online has so distorted some people"s values that they actively seek out virgin girls to satisfy their perverse desires.

Other contributory factors include a lack of sex education, poor safety management in schools, parental negligence and poor awareness among minors, he said.

Tong Lihua, director of the Beijing Minors" Legal Aid and Research Center, said primary and junior schools usually offer physical health classes for minors rather than sex education. Therefore, many children have no concept of abuse or how to protect themselves.

In addition, many parents don"t realize the importance of teaching younger children about sexual issues, and prefer to wait until the child is age 14 or 15.

"The lack of sex education means some minors may not realize they have been molested or sexually abused, and even if they do realize that a crime has been committed, some don"t even dare report it to the police," Tong said.

Wang Hai, a senior prosecutor at the procuratorate"s office, said most of the victims are the children of migrant workers or single parents.

He added that the abusers are usually acquainted with their victims-many are stepfathers, neighbors, family friends or teachers-and sometimes abuse is committed over a long period of time.

According to Li Wei, from the Beijing Lawyers Association, safety measures in schools and kindergartens are often too lax.

That means some establishments don"t conduct background checks to ensure that prospective teachers are properly qualified, or establish that they do not have a criminal record.

Moreover, safety features, such as alarms, intercoms and monitoring systems often don"t function correctly, and many schools don"t conduct regular patrols.

"As a result, some cases of sexual assault have occurred in classrooms or dormitories, and people with criminal records for rape or molestation have been recruited as teachers by schools or kindergartens, and thereby pose a direct threat to the children and school security," Li said.

A typical case was highlighted in April, when a court in Beijing upheld a sentence of 12.5 years passed by a tribunal on a man convicted of rape and molestation of a 12-year-old girl.

In addition, the court ruled that the man should not have access to jobs involving contact with children for at least five years.

About a year before the scandal broke, the man had been given an "outstanding class teacher" award by the middle school where he worked.

According to the court, he abused his victim and forced her to have sexual contact many times between March 2016 and June last year. The abuse continued until the girl told her parents, who contacted the police.

Blacklist

As revealed in China Daily last week, procuratorates across the country will soon be able to place people convicted of sexually abusing minors on a blacklist that will prevent them from working in 11 professions that offer access to children.

These jobs include teaching at schools and kindergartens, or working at training centers, medical institutions, relief agencies, sports stadiums and libraries.

The system, which has been piloted in Shanghai since August, will soon be extended nationwide.

Zheng said prosecuting departments and eight relevant authorities, including the courts, public security bureaus, and the education and civil affairs departments, will establish a database of people who have committed related crimes over the previous five years.

The database will provide recruiters with information that will help them to identify applicants convicted of sexually abusing children.

"If someone has a criminal record showing an administrative punishment or a court conviction for child sexual assault, they will be rejected when they apply for jobs," Zheng said.

According to Chen Shiqu, deputy director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau at the Ministry of Public Security, in addition to intensified official efforts, the most important thing is to ensure that children are aware of the threat and are taught how to protect themselves.

He said minors-who are physically and mentally immature, and lack the ability to distinguish right from wrong-are highly vulnerable and can become targets.

"It is essential that we improve education to prevent sexual assault at the roots, so children will be more aware and have the ability to identify potential threats. They can protect themselves from harm by studying all the relevant information about sex and learning the skills that will keep them safe," he said.