The barbaric assault on a young woman on December 16, 2012, in New Delhi, and the unprecedented public outcry that followed the incident have altered the way our laws and policies view the protection of women from sexual violence. While it is true that court judgements/amendments of the existing laws will not alter the events of what happened that night in New Delhi, the legal changes, if implemented properly, could prevent the recurrence of such incidents.
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015, was passed in the Rajya Sabha last month and it was heartening to see MPs join hands to debate and pass the new law that aims to recognise new crimes against children: Trafficking, organised crime, armed conflict, child marriage, drugs and bonded labour.
Along with the creation of new policies and institutions, there is also an urgent need to strengthen the existing ones. For example, all those responsible for the care and protection of children in the child welfare committees, juvenile justice boards, the national and state commissions for the protection of child rights and in children’s homes must be appointed on merit.
They also need to be sensitised and trained on various aspects concerning children, given adequate resources and authority and must be held accountable for their performance. The record of enforcement of the existing Juvenile Justice Act (JJA) has been uninspiring. Whatever little action has happened till now has been thanks to the Supreme Court.
The Centre has allotted Rs 2,000/month per child living in children’s homes and childcare institutions. This includes food, lodging, education and protection costs. This is very little money and so the quality of care in these institutions leaves much to be desired. This allocation should be increased to at least Rs 5,000 per month in order to ensure the education, development and care of each child. According to several reports, children constitute almost 40% of the population but the government spends only 0.4% of the GDP on them.
There is still much to be done when it comes to improving the standards of rehabilitation. Even reform frameworks are yet to be defined. The incidents of abuse in these children’s homes only proves that they must be reformed. In a first step forward, the JJ Bill seeks compulsory registration of children’s homes. This will go a long way towards checking trafficking and will assist in the re-unification of missing children with their families. This would also be the first step towards ensuring standardisation of the quality of children homes across the country.
In addition to the existing system of rehabilitation and reformation, the Bill states that if a juvenile between the 16-18 years commits a heinous crime, s/he may be tried in a children’s court and not by the juvenile justice board. Moreover, they will be tried as an adult only if the board deems necessary. Following this, if the children’s court decides, the juvenile may be further sent to a designated “place of safety” (as defined by the law) for reformation and rehabilitation. In the unlikely scenario of the failure of rehabilitation and reformation, s/he can go to an adult jail after detailed assessment and upon turning 21.
The systems of decision-making in the juvenile justice board on reformation and rehabilitation and education require investments in innovation, open-mindedness, building knowledge and capacity of the enforcement and childcare agencies, transparency, regular monitoring and, social audit to ensure its success. The success of the JJ law must not to be measured by the number of juveniles we send to homes or places of safety but by the number of children who are protected, reformed and rehabilitated by them and the number of adults being punished for crimes against children.
Faster mechanisms in order to facilitate proper governance and execution of the law with time-bound procedures are also needed. Notably, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act has a conviction rate of only 1% and pendency of 95%. Fast-track courts in every district to address heinous crimes against women and children, policy framework for access to justice, witness and victim protection, economic compensation and rehabilitation, and robust forensic science, technology focus and enhanced capability are also much needed at all levels.
The measure of a society and its future lies in the way it treats its children. Our collective frustration over the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of crimes has resulted in a demand for justice. However, justice is also in ensuring a deterrent for crimes against children; in stepping forward against trafficking, child marriage and child labour; by accepting education and protection for all children as the benchmarks for sustainable development and that all crimes result in responsibility, enough deterrent, ample rehabilitation and reformation. I like to believe that anyone and everyone can be reformed. All we need to do is change the way our children can dream and the way we look at them.
Kailash Satyarthi is the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan and a Nobel laureate
The views expressed are personal