The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) 2012 recognises the need to create a sensitive and vigilant legal regime to protect children who are the victims of sexual assault, however, its implementation has been patchy and relied on a vast and uncoordinated network of actors who bear responsibility towards the victims.
The Centre for Child and the Law (CCL) in National Law School of India University recently conducted a two-day consultation on the law which looked at how its provisions were being carried out within the Indian court system and whether the rights and interests of children were truly being protected. The participants were stakeholders drawn from various spheres of policy making such as the researchers, journalists, advocates and judges of city civil courts, Members of Parliament, few representatives of NCPCR, Joint Secretary of Women and Child Development Ministry, CWC Chairperson, social workers, police and public prosecutors. They discussed various facets of the legal regime including perspectives from the judiciary on POCSO, recommendations based on empirical studies, implementation and bottlenecks in the Act, intersectionality and vulnerability to child sexual abuse, efforts of National Commission and State Commission for Protection Child Rights, rehabilitation and shelter homes, studies on best practices and expectations of lawyers from each other while discharging the role of defense, prosecutor, or the lawyer of the victim.
Recently, Kripa Alva, the Chairperson of the Child Rights body in Karnataka (Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights or KSCPCR) who was also present at the consultation, reprimanded the print and social media for violating Section 23 of the POCSO Act. This provision specifies that no reports shall disclose the identity of a child, including name, address, photograph, family details, school, neighbourhood or any other particulars which may lead to the disclosure of the identity of the child. Such action would attract a minimum of six months of imprisonment. This onslaught came after the public in Bangalore protested in the streets to demand a complete investigation and filing of the charge sheet within 30 days, recording the statement of the sexually abused minor victim at the playschool within next four days in front of a magistrate and charging the school management under Section 16 of the POCSO Act.
The deliberations of the consultation on POCSO highlighted how disorganised activities of the police, courts and the prosecutors can amplify the mental agony of the child rather than acting in tandem to bring about justice. Sexual abuse can scar the psyche of the affected child for life and possibly lead to suicidal tendencies. In many cases, the offender is a family member or a known acquaintance. A better understanding of the overlapping vulnerabilities that put children in danger is needed as well as broader awareness of child protection laws and more stringent implementation of Child Protection policy in schools. The lack of awareness coupled with institutional apathy is a deadly combination. There is also an inbuilt ‘conspiracy of silence’, accepted as a norm, that may be seen from the families of economically weaker backgrounds. The rape of tribal children and Dalit children are often handled in a discriminatory fashion. The victims are antagonised, denied fair trial and dignity, and carry the risk of character assessment if the offender hails from an influential background. One of the critical reasons for the conspiracy of silence is the courtroom ordeal the victim dreads to face. Hence, the conviction rate itself is dismally low. It is strongly expressed that the weakest link in the chain of the judicial trial is the role of the prosecutor who needs to be trained in child specific issues in bringing the evidence to the court. Sensitization of Sakshi guidelines, protection of the child from the perpetrator, the creation of a child-friendly environment, the presence of psychologists during the pre-trial and trial, frequent breaks during the trial are yet to be enacted. Convergence of laws and holding the enforcement authorities accountable is the most important recommendation of the POCSO consultation.
The state of Goa has implemented the Criminal Justice Victim Assistance Unit, wherein a victim appearing at the center as a witness of a murder, crime, sexual abuse or verbal abuse, etc is immediately provided with Social Legal Support and Counseling as well as Medical Examination and Statement Documentation in front of an advocate. The VAU in Goa is not financially supported by the government but is the result of the higher Court’s intervention that led to its creation.
The consultation, therefore, emphasised the need for such VAU’s in every State, strengthening the role of District Trauma team with all the support staff and enforcing the NALSA Scheme that provides for a child welfare person at every police station. Most importantly, the anarchism of media must be put in check. The Media must be encouraged to act as a responsible platform for mass sensitization and sustained social responsibility. The victims that POCSO caters to are among the most vulnerable members of society and we must ensure the system works to deliver the justice they deserve.
(Apoorva is pursuing Master’s Programme in Public Policy at the National Law School of India University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)