*Trigger Warning: Mention of Child Sexual Abuse, Rape*
For a long time, sexually abusive acts against children have been veiled in Indian society due to the ignorance of people and the stigma surrounding the subject. Even after 9 years of passing the significant POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, loopholes in the legal system remain and the number of children sexually abused every day in India is still high.
However, before understanding all these inadequacies on the part of the government, do we question ourselves first as a society as to what our own ignorances are that allow such deplorable deeds to become so pervasive and normalised in our country?
Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) has been defined by the World Health Organization as “the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society”.
The definition includes acts ranging from rape, intercourse, sodomy, molestation to lesser explicit acts like fondling, inappropriate touching of private parts, prostitution, pornography and cyber sexual acts.
To get an idea of the stats, almost 37% of India’s population comprises children under the age of 18 and according to multiple surveys and studies, most of these children have claimed that they have been sexually mistreated at least once in their lives. Perpetrators of such misconduct can belong to members of the child’s family, a playmate, an elder sibling, as well as a complete stranger.
Child sexual abuse can take place in an entirely familial and familiar environment, as well as in a completely unknown situation by an unknown person. The effects of such abuse are even more damaging and leave lifelong marks.
Incidents of sexual abuse in a child’s life can result in several types of impacts both physical as well as psychological. Physical marks may include immediate consequences like bleeding, swelling of genitals, pain in private areas, bruises, as well as long-term impairments like developmental issues, reproductive, biological and neurobiological problems.
Psychological marks include life-long trauma, severe anxiety, depression, a sense of mistrust, fear and several other mental health issues. These may also reflect in the productivity and work profiles of the child in future.
The magnitude of child sexual abuse is different from other offences in terms such as outcome or impact on the victim, consequential steps taken on the perpetrator, recurrence of this offence among other minors and the process of legal prosecution in a reported case.
After several harrowing cases and failing judicial outcomes, the Supreme Court of India finally, in 2012, enacted the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The main motive of this Act was to look at child sexual abuse as distinctly different from any other form of abuse. The aim was also to carry out a child-friendly method of prosecution in a reported act of child sexual abuse.
The POCSO served a better stand to the three IPC laws existing before 2012, that protected children, specifically females, from “rape”, “unnatural offences”, and “outraging a woman’s modesty”. These ambiguous and ignorant terms were defined comparatively better by the offences stated under the POCSO Act and provided better grounds for child rights concerning both females and males.
There has undoubtedly been a steady rise in the number of reported cases after the enactment of this Act, but the loopholes that the POCSO left unfulfilled is still a grave reason why CSA counts in India make leaps every year.
However, a major inadequacy of POCSO has remained, which is its procedural method to deal with historical cases. It is seen in many cases that reporting a CSA has been a lengthy decision-making process. Victims often find it difficult to comprehend and talk about their abuse which results in them taking years to report their case(s). They go through fears, societal pressures, and several decision-making trials to find the courage to finally report to the legal system.
Since our medical and legal bodies depend mostly on physical and evidential proofs, most such cases go neglected or denied when reported years after the occurrence of the incident. As a result of its inability to deal with such historical cases of CSA, several cases before 2012, and even after, have not been reported at all.
The alleged failure of the State police to slap charges under the POCSO Act on a primary schoolteacher suspected of having sexually abused a girl student is shaping up to be a political battlefront between the govt. and the Opposition in #Kerala .https://t.co/lnfyEr4KvI
— The Hindu – Kerala (@THKerala) July 27, 2020
In cases of late reporting, most cases were rendered implausible according to terms of the POCSO which clearly does not mention anything about historical cases. The shortage of this Act also reflects in the hike in CSA counts with every passing year.
Criticisms of the law dealing with CSA in India opens our eyes to a broader range of inadequacies of the entire legal system. In contrast to the inefficiency of our legal system, the U.K. has developed its laws under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 to aid the police in every possible way to carry out successful prosecution of CSA cases in every circumstance.
The need to review the law for child sexual abuse in India is absolutely necessary not only to end the plight of victims before 2012 and deal with historical reports of CSA but also for raising awareness and ending the hush surrounding the topic of child sexual abuse in all communities of India.
It is said that change begins at home, and as a society, we can start this with initiatives to openly talk about child sexual abuse in both private and public spaces. This shall raise awareness and educate people on this issue that is mortifyingly rampant, yet, so carefully suppressed.
Denying the presence of such an issue is what allows it to continue and grow in the first place and even after years of statistics showing increasing CSA, the Indian society mostly keeps hush on this topic. This has to change. Keeping the stigma intact only gives more reasons for perpetrators to continue the crime.
If we are to look at the law in terms of its inefficiencies, we must not look at it as something separate from us. We are what constitutes the law, and hence, we should constantly try to improve it. If there is enough awareness among children as well as adults about what constitutes child sexual abuse and its impacts, the occurrence of it would be markedly less because of growing consciousness and ways of prevention. There shall also remain an air of fright among predators who would think of consequences before committing this crime.
The instinct of fright for consequences can be achieved only when the judicial system promises strict punishment to every perpetrator that, according to the current law, often goes footloose in today’s India. This can be achieved only when every single case of CSA is reported and prosecuted.
The terms of POCSO dealing with historical cases should be urgently reformed so that every victim even before 2012 can report their cases even today if needed. Time should not be a worrisome factor for a victim’s report. To offer sufficient time to an already physically and psychologically affected CSA victim is a humanitarian factor and that should be the biggest duty of law.
As for another humanitarian concern, the law should immediately make ways to find proof for a CSA case that does not solely involve medical or immediate physical proof. This problem causes a lot of late reports to be termed implausible since no evidential proof remains. The victim’s narrative in such cases of late CSA reports should be heard very minutely and prosecutions should be held based on this narrative.
Questions asked to the victim during prosecution should be conducted in a child-friendly manner to ensure their comfort and a safe space. The environment should not feel hostile or intimidating for the victim.
It has been 9 years since POCSO was brought into action. Our children deserve to live without threat and fear. A law that fails to protect our children even after all these years is no law at all. The absence of this guaranteed safety is plainly proved in the rising statistics of CSA cases every year.
It is, however, not a surprise for a country with a government busy raising buildings and temples to have women’s and children’s rights lying in quite a dark corner of the saviour’s manifesto. To put a check on the authority of this power full of corruption and neglect, we need to collect ourselves together as a society to protect our own children.
With the suggested measures above and a strong motive to fight for this issue, a CSA-free India seems quite possible and hopeful.
If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at email@example.com. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.