Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is a phenomenon affecting multiple individuals, but primarily the child. Child sexual abuse is a traumatic event in the life of a child. According to the WHO (1999), it results in actual or potential harm to a child’s health, survival, development, or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power.
40% of India’s total population is children, but it is ranked as the sixth most unsafe country for children. In 2007, The Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, supported by United Nations Children’s Fund, Save The Children and Prayas conducted a study to understand the magnitude of child abuse in India; they found that 53.22% children faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. Among them, the number of boys abused was 52.94% and of girls was 47.06%. Children on the street, children at work, and children in institutional care reported highest incidence of sexual assault.
A survey conducted by World Vision India in May 2017, which had more than 45,000 children participants in the 12- 18 age group across the country, revealed that one in every two children is a victim of child sexual abuse. The survey also revealed that one in every five do not feel safe because of the fear of being sexually abused. It also found that one in four families do not come forward to report child abuse.
According to the NCRB, 106,958 cases of crimes against children were recorded in 2016. Of these, 36,022 cases were recorded under POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act. The number of cases registered for child abuse raised from 8,904 in the year 2014 to 14,913 in the year 2015, under the POSCO Act. Sexual offences and kidnapping account for 81% of the crimes against minors. State wise cases under POSCO Act: Uttar Pradesh led the highest number of child abuse cases (4954) followed by Maharashtra (4815) and Madhya Pradesh (4717 cases).
A report by Human Rights Watch titled ‘Breaking the Silence: Child Sexual Abuse in India’ stated that “While great awareness has been raised about sexual violence against women in India, much less is known about the problem of sexual abuse of children. Studies suggest that more than 7,200 children, including infants, are raped every year; experts believe that many more cases go unreported.”
Is the death penalty a solution?
The recent approval of the Ordinance for changes in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Evidence Act, the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act is seen as a great step towards ensuring the safety of women and children in India. The Ordinance has some positive aspects such as time bound investigation, trial and disposal of appeals; restrictions on bail; New Fast Track Courts; special forensic labs; and the extension of ‘One Stops Centre’ scheme for assistance to victims to all districts in the country.
All these positive aspects shouldn’t obscure various concerns related to the Ordinance. This Ordinance is more a reflection of popular demands rather than a result of proper research. This aspect was highlighted by the Delhi High Court when it questioned the Centre, whether any research or scientific assessment was conducted before coming out with an ordinance to award death penalty for rape of girls below the age of 12. There is little evidence to prove that the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent.
The death penalty is even more problematic in such rapes cases where the perpetrator is someone from the family of a victim. There are realistically very little chances that a victim below the age of 12, who is sexually abused by a family member or a relative, will come forward and file a complaint, especially, knowing that the complaint could mean death to her father, brother or a close relative. This would mean lesser number of cases being reported.
The death penalty also increases the chances of more ‘rape and murder cases’. The fact that the since the disclosure of rape by a victim could lead to death penalty, child abusers would prefer to play safe by killing the victim.
Another problematic part of the Ordinance is lack of gender neutrality, even though the POCSO Act is gender neutral. The Ordinance provides for harsher punishments for rapists of only female victims of various ages. In reality, young boys are equally vulnerable to sexual abuse. It doesn’t make a difference whether a 12-year-old boy or a 12-year-old girl is raped. A child is a child, irrespective of the gender.
The legal aspects come into the picture when a complaint is registered. At times, registering the complaint in itself is a difficult process especially when the perpetrators are provided political patronage. Political clout of the abusers and use of threats often stops the victims to file complaints. It was very well applied in the Unnao and Kathua gang rape and murder cases.
What do we really need to do?
- Ensure better implementation of existing laws rather than bring new ones
- Robust victim and witness protection system
- Support system for victims and families during and after trials
- Sensitisation and training of all stakeholders in order to adhere to child friendly procedure
- Enhanced Budget for children. Allocation for child protection is only at 0.05% (i.e. 5 paise per Rs.100)
- All schools, institutions and organisations should have a Child Protection Policy
- Community awareness and involvement in creating safe spaces for children at village, block and district level
- Challenge the stereotypes and attitudes that encourage violence and perpetuate inequality