Law to prevent child sexual abuse is path-breaking, but there are still huge gaps to fill: Majlis
As we enter the fifth year, it’s time to weigh the gains and losses of the POCSO Act. While the act has several positive provisions, one of the most controversial is that of mandatory reporting.
Not only has the act put the onus of reporting the sexual abuse of children on every citizen, it has also made non-reporting a crime. This has helped bring out so many cases of child sexual abuse that lay hidden because often, doctors, police, teachers and even parents have been complicit. In the past year, Mumbai saw a threefold jump in the reporting of penetrative sexual offences alone — a clear sign the abuse of children is rampant. But mandatory reporting should be accompanied by giving victims support. Sadly, this is not a reality and it makes those who report sexual abuse extremely vulnerable. POCSO also put in place measures to ensure the child is protected and supported — a child need not go to the police station to file an FIR, her statement has to be recorded by a woman officer in plainclothes, the Child Welfare Committee has to provide a ‘support person’ throughout investigation and trial, child-friendly courts which, as far as possible, are headed by women judges should be set up.
These rules have made the situation a lot better today. In 2011, when Majlis initiated a survivor support programme for victims in Mumbai, the situation was dismal. The police would not record cases of child sexual abuse. They would keep children waiting at police stations and call the accused, who would confront her with humiliating questions. The response of trial court judges was even more shocking. Victims were made to wait in corridors. We have seen children who were made to sit on the railing of the witness box as the judge seated on a high podium could not hear her. While today, the court infrastructure has improved slightly, we still see a lack of sensitivity among judges who have preconceived notions of what is a ‘genuine’ and ‘false’ case.
There are also gaps in implementation. There are also delays. With all POCSO cases requiring sessions trial, there are enormous delays. Majlis itself has 80 cases filed in 2014 still awaiting trial. If the accused gets out on bail, there is little hope of a trial. And then, there are the cases of rapes by fathers and stepfathers. Almost 20% of our cases are in this category. It is difficult for a child to report the crime and when reported , there is a great deal of pressure to retract. Such children need more support. This issue has received little attention. We must remember what Bombay HC said two years after POCSO: “The children are the stakeholders…we are the duty bearers and should do our duty to the best of our ability”.
(Audrey D’mello is programme director at Majlis legal centre)