Child sexual abuse (CSA) has been considered a taboo issue in our country. Children, being vulnerable and unable to speak out because of various familial and social pressures, suffer throughout their lifetime due to these violations. Indeed the pressures increase manifold when the abuser is a known person. It’s time we protect our children from such harm and ensure them a safe, secure and responsible world before our “demographic dividend” turns into a serious and irrecoverable “demographic loss”. Delhi is fortunate to have vulnerable witness deposition rooms attached to four Special Courts hearing POCSO cases and others following basic child-friendly procedure of ensuring screen between the child and accused. Recent increase in the number of Special Courts is also a welcome step. Yet much remains to make justice real for the child.
Thirty organisations of Delhi working on different aspects of child rights have come together and decided to strive for a society with no tolerance for CSA. As adults we have for long promised to provide care and support to our children but failed. CSA is an extremely sensitive issue and we at times avoid dealing with them, ignoring subtle forms of sexual abuse or not considering them to be ‘serious’ enough, giving way to more heinous forms. It is time we take this issue seriously and Act Now! to end child sexual abuse. As parents, caregivers, teachers, individuals working for children, we need to take on more responsibility. Introducing the Campaign, Enakshi Gnaguly of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights said, -“For too long we have placed the responsibility of breaking the silence on children. Unfortunately, when they do speak up, adults fail to act. Its high time we held adults in the family, the community and the system accountable. While children have to be empowered to disclose, this disclosure must be responded to sensitively and strongly.”
There are numerous challenges in dealing with these cases. Survivors of CSA are often blamed and discriminated. While laws are in place to secure justice, the children do not have the support of their families and communities and left to fight a lonely battle. Family honour, shame, cultural taboos and social stigma make the issue more complex.
Here are some of the important issues that affect access to justice for child victims of sexual abuse
Mr Ashok Kumar from Dr A.V.Baliga Trust said "Child Sexual Abuse is a complex problem rooted in unhealthy relationships and environment. Its prevention requires a comprehensive approach that influences all levels of social ecology, community involvement, relationships among family members and individual behaviour. Government must ensure the execution of the POCSO Act".
Preventive measures are inadequate and piece-meal – Often in response to cases highlighted by media we find some measures being taken such as setting up toilet facilities in the communities or improving street lighting to prevent sexual crimes. Soon it is forgotten till another case happens and there is public outcry. Even before any stock can be taken regarding the measures already announced, new needs emerge and the void remains. The flavor changes as per media reporting. Current flavor is about educating children to help them protect their own selves. Such piece-meal approach to prevention of child abuse has caused more harm than good to the children.
Incest has emerged as a huge challenge - Most existing research points out how difficult it is for a child to sustain the legal battle when the accused is inside the family. As per Crime in India 2015, the accused/offender was known to the child in 8,341 of 8,800 cases (95%). In 138 of these 8,341 (1.7%) incest cases, the accused was the child’s grandfather/ father/ brother/ etc. Another 210 cases (2.5%) were by other close family members and 581 cases (7%) by a relative. Experience of most organisations shows that the children and their families turn hostile in such cases. Indeed, incest remains under reported.
CSA impacts education - There is a clear indication that CSA directly impacts the education of the survivors. While there is much discussion on the law, the legal procedures and to an extent the counselling support, denial or deprivation of the basic right to education of young girls is rarely discussed. The reasons for denial or deprivation lie in social stigma, schools not wanting children with history of sexual abuse, schools not knowing how to deal with such cases, absence of children from school post incidence due to the trauma and the court case or due to pregnancy resulting from abuse, and such other factors.
Where are the support persons and experts - The role of the support person in CSA cases appointed by the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) under the POCSO Act 2012 is very important. As part of assessing the needs of the child survivor of abuse and restorative care, the support persons come across their educational needs, including enrolment in schools, vocational courses and tuitions. The District Child Protection Units are supposed to identify such support persons and experts and make a list of such persons available to the police, the CWC and the Special Courts.
Youngest Children are the Most Vulnerable – Ms. Sumitra Mishra from Mobile Crèches said, given the spurt of reporting of CSA of very young children, as young as a few months old, prevention of CSA amongst estimated 4.6 Crore children under six years of age remains a major concern. In the absence of adequate day care and crèches (The Rajiv Gandhi Crèche Scheme (RGCS) 3.32 lakhs children) these children remain. Provision of such services requires resources. Unfortunately, the revised National Programme for Crèches and Daycare has a budget allocation of 200 Crores (16-17), only 50 crores more than the RGCS. She added, “Universalising access to creches and daycare services at work places and neighbourhoods, through different local bodies, as a means to prevent CSA and keep children under six years, protected is required urgently.”
Victim’s Right to Legal Representation and Right to be informed about the proceedings in their case remains a lip service - According to NCRB’s Crime in India Report, 26,810 persons were under trial on charges under the POCSO Act in 2015 and at the end of the year, 17,159 were out on bail. Investigating Officers do not inform children and their families about listing of bail applications and Special Court’s do not ensure presence of the child’s lawyer during bail hearings. The impact of release of the accused on bail has serious implications on the children and their families. This is not to say that the accused should not be released on bail at all, but to insist that the conventional method of looking at mitigating and aggravating circumstances while granting bail needs to undergo a change. Mother of two victims also shared their plight and struggle of the social stigma as well as legal battle, they said “we were left to struggle at our own and were neer informed when the accused was released on bail”.
Provisions dealing with child pornography are seldom applied even when elements of child pornography are visible in a case - Case examples show that relevant provisions of the law on use of children for pornography or sale of material carrying child pornography are not being used to book the accused. This despite the FIRs and the statements recorded before Judicial Magistrates clearly making out a case for child pornography. All organsiations demanded the following:
· Implement Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) in its entirety. This scheme provides for creation and strengthening of community mechanisms for child protection. There is a crying need for child protection committees at the mohalla level. If Mohalla Clinics can be a priority, why should Mohalla Child Protection Committees or Bal Suraksha Dals remain ignored?
· Scaling up the Anganwadi centres as Anganwadi cum crèches.
· We need to ensure that every school has a Child Protection Committee on the lines of the Committee against Sexual Harassment at workplace.
· NCPCR, SCPCRs, DCW and other human rights institutions should carry out regular social audit to ensure that no child is denied or deprived of their right to education because of being a victim of sexual abuse.
· Ensure action against police who delay registration of FIR in cases of sexual crimes and fail to keep the children and their families updated on the developments in their case.
· Provide necessary training to police to improve their investigation skills, especially in matters on online sexual crimes against children and child pornography.
· Provide necessary training to the Public Prosecutors and Judges to adopt special practices for a special law like the POCSO Act while following the basic principles of fair trial and due process of law.
· Access to justice has to become a reality and the process of justice has to bring confidence in people to come forward and report as also become effective witnesses instead of shirking their responsibility.
· Every child’s protection needs should be assessed and assistance provided under the Witness Protection Scheme. This is particularly necessary when the accused is being released on bail and children or their families have reported threats. The victims must be heard during bail hearings.
· Every child survivor of sexual abuse should be able to get the services of a support person.