System fails kids who face sexual crimes

DH Insight: System fails kids who face sexual crimes

A recent protest in Mandya against the increasing crime against children.

Life changed for Suchitra (name changed), 16, when she and her parents filed a POCSO case four years ago after she narrowly escaped sexual advances by an acquaintance. Initially, she was perplexed when her friends’ parents started behaving like strangers and refused to send their daughters to play with her. Then she noticed the changed behaviour of her neighbours with her parents too. People came to her house and engaged in long discussions, most of the time to convince them to withdraw the case.

She knew that she was at the centre of these discussions and that made her anxious. Some family members appreciated her presence of mind but many felt that making this incident public would ruin her future. 

They stood past the apprehensions linked to cases of child sexual abuse in their aim to bring the culprit to the book. Four years later, the optimistic couple and their brave child are feeling lost and cheated. 

This Mandya-based family turned hostile in the court when the society and the system put constant pressure on them, leading to the acquittal of the accused. 

Suchitra’s mother, Sumitra (name changed), told DH that the misogynistic attitude of society was more pronounced when they decided to file the case. Even at the police station, officers felt they filed the case unnecessarily as no physical harm was done to the girl. And the accused got bail in just 15 days.

“We had to endure the stigma attached to sexual abuse and the first comment would be about the child’s character,” she rued. 

From poor witness- protection programmes to insensitive stakeholders, a survivor has to cross a wall of hurdles to get justice in cases under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. 

In the face of the rising crimes against children (any person below the age of 18 years), the law was enacted to ensure a child-friendly investigation and hasten prosecution.

However, the societal attitudes which put the blame on the survivor and the complainant; the lack of knowledge, sensitivity and accountability among stakeholders; and the last-mile gap in implementation are some of the major issues that come in the way of the effective implementation of the Act. 

For Nagamani, the district Childline coordinator in Bengaluru, convincing the police to file a complaint under the POCSO Act is an everyday ordeal. 

“Recently, we had to spend over six hours in the police station, till 1.30 am, to ensure that the police filed the First Information Report (FIR).” 

In some cases, mainly in rural areas, survivors are forced to visit the police station even though it is not mandatory. “There is a designated child welfare protection officer in each police station. However, common people are not aware of this provision. In some cases, the officers themselves are ignorant of this responsibility,” she told DH

In another case in Mandya, laxity in the investigation led to the acquittal of the accused in the rape-and-murder case of a seven-year-old child, after four years, alleges the mother of the victim. 

READ: 'Casual attitude needs to change'

Poornima, a paralegal volunteer at the Mandya District Legal Services Authority, said that she has supported the complainants of three such cases in Mandya in
2014-15.

“So far, the conviction has happened only in one case,” she told DH. For every case that is reported, there are at least 10 cases that go unreported due to multiple reasons, she indicated.  The low conviction rates show that the effective implementation of the Act is still a distant dream.

According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau data, the percentage of POCSO cases pending trial in the country in 2018 is as high as 90.3%. The conviction rate remains low at 34.2%. 

In Karnataka, the pendency percentage for the year 2017 was at 88.91%, while conviction remained low at 19.97%, according to Karnataka State Crime Records Bureau data. 

One of the major reasons for the low conviction rates is an inordinate delay in the disposal of cases which makes the complainant turn hostile. 

The mother of a 12-year-old survivor in Bengaluru explained, “I shouldn’t have registered a complaint. The system has made my daughter endure the trauma for the past two years and the cross-examination started only last month. Meanwhile, we have a death threat from the family of the accused.” 

Child rights activist Rupa Hassan, who has so far supported over 30 POCSO complainants, clearly remembers a case where the indifference showed by both the police and the medical practitioners could have cost a 15-year-old’s life.

“The girl was four months into pregnancy. The doctors said we need to get a letter from the police for a medical termination. But the police refused saying it didn’t come under their purview. When both the parties didn’t oblige after repeated requests, I had to approach the Women And Child Development Minister to get the district officials into action,” she said. 

The Act also provides for support persons to help the complainants through the process. However, there is no proper awareness about it and NGOs also point at the dearth of support persons. This makes the aggrieved family vulnerable.

As per the Act, the survivor is entitled to a compensation of Rs 10,000 immediately after filing the complaint and later at different stages depending on the nature of the crime. But in many cases, this doesn’t happen and sometimes they are given a partial amount. “The chain of protests and resistance begins there,” said Devi of Janavadi women’s association. Three months ago, her team protested in Nelamangala taluk to get the initial compensation for two children who survived sexual abuse.

As a paralegal volunteer, Poornima had to step in several times when the implementing agencies were not aware of the provisions of the Act. “I have fought at the police station when the child was made to give the statement in front of a male officer; raised an objection when the doctor started medical examination without informing the child; resisted when the required staff were not available at the one-stop crisis centre,” she said. 

While the Act mentions that the doctor should examine the survivor at the one-stop crisis centre set up in the district hospitals to ensure privacy, in the centre that DH visited, the survivor is taken to the hospital’s gynaecology department for medical examination. 

K A Dayanand, director, Department of Women and Child Development, said that as per the new guidelines, the department is replacing these one-stop crisis centres with well-equipped facilities called Sakhi centres. 

Exclusive courts

The Supreme Court in October 2019 ordered setting up of 17 exclusive POCSO courts in the state in districts where the number of pending cases for trial is more than 100. Karnataka Law Minister J C Madhuswamy told DH that work has been initiated in this regard. “As per the apex court’s direction, we will soon appoint public prosecutors (PP) to handle POCSO cases exclusively,” he said.  

“It is common to see different PPs handling a case at different periods of trial. In some cases, the number reaches five. Naturally, it decelerates the process. Recently, one such case was withdrawn as the complainant felt it was obstructing her life,” said P Lakshapati of Association For Promoting Social Action, an organisation working with underserved and physically abused women.

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For PPs, the problem is to keep the complainants motivated and to make sure that they don’t yield to pressure. “Delay in getting forensic science laboratory reports, hurdles in the investigation, etc hinder the process. While some of us take POCSO cases exclusively, many handle other types of cases also,” said a public prosecutor who wished to remain anonymous. 

“We need exclusive courts in all districts. These cases require a different kind of orientation and sensitivity, and have to be dealt with very carefully,” said
Advocate G V Ashok.

One step ahead

On a positive note, in October 2019, Karnataka became the first state to release the standard operating procedure (SOP) for the implementation of the POCSO Act. 

“The agencies are working towards providing justice to the children. However, there are many grey areas,” said Fr Antony Sebastian, chairperson, Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR). 

“No guideline will be effective unless implementation agencies change their attitude. For instance, training happens regularly for officials to update them about the provisions of the Act. But those who attend the training are generally not the ones who work on the ground. Also, each stakeholder has multiple responsibilities and they are not able to give the required time to create a comfortable environment for the child. This lack of motivation can be seen in the way they respond to the
situations,” said Krupa Alva, former chairperson of KSCPCR. 

Kushi Kushalappa of Enfold Trust, an NGO that supports survivors of child sexual abuse, pointed at the lack of convergence between stakeholders. “Without convergence between stakeholders like a doctor to the investigative officer to the public prosecutor, the experiences of children and families journeying through the criminal justice system will remain the same. Besides the SOPs, having an effective review and monitoring mechanism would help matters further,” she said.