A four-year-old girl was brutally assaulted by four adult men in the national capital last week, in an incident that was reminiscent of the gruesome 2013 gang-rape that had consumed the consciousness of the nation. Blood curdling details emerged through the weekend - the young girl sustained injuries in her intestines and her private parts, and is currently battling for her life in a hospital.
The incident, however, has not received the kind of widespread coverage and attention that the 2013 gang-rape did - and something tells me that this has to do with the deafening silence that we as a society like to maintain about child sexual abuse. This is a malaise, which as a Delhi High Court judge recently said, is taking "epidemic"proportions in India.
Last week, when I'd tweeted about India being home to the largest number of sexually abused children, someone tweeted back telling me that I was unfairly branding India as a nation of child rapists. While that is hardly a moniker befitting a progressive nation, data unfortunately, tells us exactly that.
A 2007 sample study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development reports the following disquieting facts:
- 53.22%, or every second child reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse.
- Out of the total child respondents, 20.90% were subjected to severe forms of sexual abuse that included sexual assault, making the child fondle private parts, making the child exhibit private body parts and being photographed in the nude. Out of these 57.30% were boys and 42.70% were girls. Over one-fifth of these children faced more than three forms of sexual abuse.
- Out of the total child respondents, 50.76% were subjected to other forms of sexual abuse that included forcible kissing, sexual advances made during travel and marriages and exposure to pornographic material. Out of these 53.07% were boys and 46.93% were girls. Over 50% of children faced more than two forms of sexual abuse
- 50% abusers are persons known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility. Most children did not report the matter to anyone.
- Children on the street, children at work and children in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual assault.
A major part of the problem is the lethargic institutional response to child sexual abuse - which has so far been limited to spurts of outrage in response to specific incidence. In a previous column for ndtv.com, I had delineated some of the worst responses I received from the ministry of women and child development, to my questions on child sexual abuse in Parliament. In this piece, however, I will outline that major gaps in the implementation of the well regarded Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 or POCSO - a law which specifically deals with these incidents.
Of the relatively few cases of child sexual abuse that are reported to the police, an even smaller proportion ever makes it through the justice system. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights reported that in 2014, of a total of 6816 cases that were registered as FIRs under the POCSO Act only 555 made it to court. This is a dismal 8%.
Access to justice remains a big challenge in service provision chain. Many parents and caregivers, especially those with little access to resources, are dissuaded by the logistics and bureaucracy associated with negotiating POCSO courts.
The special designated POCSO courts were constituted with explicitly to "provide a speedy trial" for child sexual abuse cases. In fact, section 35 (2) of the Act, stipulates a period of one year from the date of taking cognisance of the incident, for the court to dispose off with the case.
Unfortunately, even cursory data on case disposal reported by the government, paints a discouraging picture of how well this intention has been actualized. In response to some of my parliamentary
questions over the last two years, I have learnt that of the 6,816 alleged perpetrators booked under the POCSO Act, only 166 convictions have been made, while 389 accused have been acquitted. The conviction rate under the act, therefore, is a paltry 2.4%.
The tragic corollary to this is that pendency rates for child rape cases have actually increased from 20594 in 2010 to 37519 in 2014 - a massive increase of about 84% This pendency persists in the face of increased reporting. While the judicial process dawdles along, eight cases of child sexual abuse continue to be reported everyday. The number of registered child rapes rose 151% from 5,484 in 2009 to 13,766 in 2014.
CHILD UNFRIENDLY COURTS
An RTI reply furnished in response to a query by an advocate and now part of Delhi high court records, reveals that special courts set up to try crimes against children under POCSO are burdened with cases of human rights violations and cases under SEBI, MCOCA and TADA. "As per office records the court of ASJ-01 is functioning as children court/human rights court/drugs & cosmetics."
An additional sessions court judge, hearing POCSO matters, had brought these facts to the attention of the court administration and very rightly mentions in her letter that, "Many children come to court daily for deposition. It is not conducive and advisable to expose children to MCOCA accused who are brought to court in handcuffs and fetters."
Further, provisions made to protect the privacy of the victim and witnesses, are being violated. The response to an RTI filed in 2013 in Jharkhand revealed that in many cases the victim's name has been disclosed, despite the law not allowing it. Of the 85 cases filed in the state that year, the name of the victim has been disclosed in as many as 22 cases.
It is evident, therefore that the lack of capacity in institutions such as the police and judiciary is compromising 11 laudable child-friendly procedures outlined in the POCSO Act - and therein highlighting the glaring gaps in implementation.
Data and analysis apart, it is important for us to remember, that each such incident is depriving our children of their right to a safe, happy and healthy childhood. Unfortunately, despite comprising of over 40% of our population, children have remained a politically voiceless, vulnerable group that no government in the last 68 years has chosen to stand up for.
It is imperative for us as citizens to break the silence, and put an end to child sexual abuse. What can you do? For one, sign my Change.org petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to commit to a roadmap to address child sexual abuse.
India's children deserve better. Let us not wait for the next incident.
(Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a Rajya Sabha MP and Technology Entrepreneur.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.