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Let’s Talk About Child Abuse | Justice can no longer exist as a theoretical ideal, writes a lawyer

The need of the hour is to have dynamic and updated policies, as nature of sexual assault against children is evolving at a challenging pace, writes lawyer and activist Bhuwan Ribhu.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2017 08:53 IST
Bhuwan Ribhu
(Illustration: Rahul Krishnan)

In December 2013, the country was still reeling from the Delhi gang rape that had left the national conscience permanently wounded. Less than six months later, a five-year-old girl was kidnapped at Gandhinagar in New Delhi and while police registered an FIR, nothing else moved for the investigation and recovery of the child. Two days later, she was found bleeding and unconscious, tied up in the basement of her building with an oil bottle and candle inside her.

What followed then, was a shameful exhibition of the country’s damaged response mechanism to child rape. As the child was taken back and forth three hospitals after being refused treatment, subjected to repeated police questioning, her father was allegedly offered money by police to hush up the matter, and only her persistent parents, media glare and political clamouring brought the case into limelight. Miraculously, she survived but only after years of agony and multiple surgeries. If police had acted promptly and rounded up the neighbours, the child could have been saved.

Read Part 1 | ‘I was raped at 7, torture continued for 11 years’: A child abuse survivor’s account

Her case drags on in the special POCSO court (made in accordance with the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012) in New Delhi, a law that mandates that trial should be completed within a year as far as possible. This case is representative of thousands of cases of sexual violence against children in India every year. The flaws too are characteristic of the manner in which every child subjected to sexual abuse experiences a system gravely unprepared to deal with the complexities of the assault.

Read Part 2| Bullying is the first sign of abuse, says school principal

When this case was taken to the Supreme Court as the case in point of the systemic gaps in the recovery of kidnapped children’s cases in April 2013, the top court gave a landmark judgment within a month on May 10 directing that all cases of missing children must be registered and investigated, standard operating procedures for investigation must be set, a database of all missing children and children in need of care and protection across the country to be ma- de, among other directions. While a large vacuum in nat- ional policy for children was filled through multiple orders in the case and in many other judicial pronouncements, several gaps remain palpable. These may be filled by a new six-point strategy for child protection: policy, institutions, education, capacity building, accountability and technology (PIECATS).

UPDATING POLICIES

The need, therefore, for dynamic and updated policies is absolute and imperative as the nature of individual and organised sexual crimes against children is evolving at a challenging pace. For instance, cyber trafficking of children for pornography or exploitation is possibly the most threatening evolving crime currently, such as the horrific Blue Whale game. The anonymity and impunity that accompany digital abuse magnifies the threat and the challenge to curb it and therefore, there is imminent need for a national policy to address cyber crime against children, taking into account the best possible technological solutions available globally.

INSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK

At all levels of response the institutions responsible to provide protection, care and support need to respond effectively to the special needs of the victim as well as the family. From first responders to police, hospitals, courts and forensic science labs, all must ensure rehabilitation, reparation and restitution in a time-bound manner and prevent re-victimisation.

PREVENTION VIA EDUCATION

The definite method of doing so is by instituting age-appropriate child rights education in educational policy and mainstream curriculum, including legal rights and means of getting support.

CAPACITY BUILDING

Alongside accountability comes building of capacity through knowledge, attitude and practice (KAP). Development of stakeholder-specific, hands-on and standardised training programmes for caregivers, with measurable change in levels of KAP have for been long due.

OPTIMUM USE OF TECHNOLOGY

Technology has advanced phenomenally in usability and connectivity. However, its use for protection of children is far from optimal. From universal birth registration to tracking, the latest technology for child protection and tracking needs to advance and move beyond documenting the crime to analysing, assessing patterns and predicting the crime.

SOCIETAL AWAKENING

Stigma attached to rape and abuse must be borne not by the victim but the perpetrator, and their naming and shaming should result in both prevention as well as public pressure against such crimes. A sex offender registry is urgently needed

to ensure that a criminal can never be employed in child care positions. With the silence that surrounds a crime like child sexual abuse, not only does it not get reported, but also it is this silence that further promotes and propagates the crime. This calls for a rise in public consciousness towards the crime for breaking the shame and silence around it. It calls for a mass awakening to bring an end to child sexual abuse in schools, homes and neighbourhoods.

ADOPT POLICY OF ZEROTOLERANCE
  • The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) came into existence in 2012.
  • Was formulated to effectively address sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children.
  • The Act defines a child as any person below 18 years of age.
  • It defines different forms of sexual abuse, including penetrative and non-penetrative assault, as well as sexual harassment and pornography.
  • The Act further makes provisions for avoiding the re-victimisation of the child at the hands of the judicial system. It provides for special courts that conduct the trial in-camera and without revealing the identity of the child, in a manner that is as child-friendly as possible.
  • The Act stipulates that a case of child sexual abuse must be disposed of within one year from the date the offence is reported.
  • Between 2014 and 2015, the city sessions courts delivered judgments in 170 POCSO cases, according to the Delhi district courts website. Only 20 cases resulted in guilty verdicts. The accused were acquitted in the remaining 150.

In 2016, the total number of cases reported under POCSO in India was 34,509, the number of cases disposed of was 12,710 and pending cases were 71,552. Thus, if no case of sexual abuse of a child is reported in the country from today, it would take approximately six years for the backlog of trials to be completed.

The five-year-old raped girl in New Delhi has approached the Delhi high court for justice. The suspects are about 20 years old — proved an age determination test taken when the charge sheet was filed. Four years on, they are out on bail, claiming they were juveniles. The case drags on. Society that is unable to give justice to a child rape survivor must question the fundamentals of justice itself. Justice can no longer exist as a theoretical ideal. The country must internalise justice, in its practice and in its conscience. And we must begin with our children.

The author is former national secretary, Bachpan Bachao Aandolan, a lawyer and child rights activist.

This is the third part of the HT series #LetsTalkAboutChildAbuse. Join the conversation on @htTweets and send us your ideas and suggestions at writetous@hindustantimes.com.