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Editorials/Opinions Analyses for UPSC – 25 May 2021

Contents

  1. Expanding the scope of POCSO

Expanding the scope of POCSO

Context:

  • Since 2012, India has sought to “protect children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography” through the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).
  • Recently, the Supreme Court had to injunct an interpretation of ‘skin-to-skin contact’ given by the Bombay High Court.
  • Another fundamental defect of POCSO is its inability to deal with historical cases.

Relevance:

GS-II: Social Justice (Issues related to Children, Government Interventions and Policies, Issues arising out of the design and implementation of Government Policies)

Mains Questions:

Critically examine the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and throw light on its shortcomings. With respect to ‘Historical Abuse’, is there a need to reconsider POCSO’s approach? (15 marks)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012
  2. Salient features of the Act
  3. Contention/Criticisms around implementation of POCSO
  4. Shortcomings in implementation of POSCO Act
  5. Historical child sexual abuse
  6. Need to review the law
  7. About POCSO Amendment Act 2019

About Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012

  • The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 was enacted to provide a robust legal framework for the protection of children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography, while safeguarding the interest of the child at every stage of the judicial process.
  • The framing of the Act seeks to put children first by making it easy to use by including mechanisms for child-friendly reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and speedy trial of offences through designated Special Courts.
  • The Act provides for a variety of offences under which an accused can be punished. It recognises forms of penetration other than penile-vaginal penetration and criminalises acts of immodesty against children too. Offences under the act include:
    • Penetrative Sexual Assault: Insertion of penis/object/another body part in child’s vagina/urethra/anus/mouth, or asking the child to do so with them or some other person
    • Sexual Assault: When a person touches the child, or makes the child touch them or someone else
    • Sexual Harassment: passing sexually coloured remark, sexual gesture/noise, repeatedly following, flashing, etc.
    • Child Pornography
    • Aggravated Penetrative Sexual Assault/ Aggravated Sexual Assault

Salient features of the Act

  • The act is gender-neutral for both children and for the accused.
  • With respect to pornography, the Act criminalises even watching or collection of pornographic content involving children.
  • The Act makes abetment of child sexual abuse an offence.
  • Defines a child as any person below eighteen years of age
  • Provides for mandatory reporting of sexual offences, keeping with the best international child protection standards.
  • Police cast in the role of child protectors during the investigative process: The police personnel receiving a report of sexual abuse of a child are given the responsibility of making urgent arrangements for the care and protection of the child.
  • Provisions for the medical examination of the child in a manner designed to cause as little distress as possible
  • Provision of Special Courts: that conduct the trial in-camera and without revealing the identity of the child, in a child-friendly manner.
  • Timely disposal of cases: A case of child sexual abuse must be disposed of within one year from the date the offence is reported.
  • Recognition to a wide range of form of sexual abuse against children: as punishable offences.
  • People who traffic children for sexual purposes are also punishable under the provisions relating to abetment in the Act. The Act prescribes stringent punishment graded as per the gravity of the offence, with a maximum term of rigorous imprisonment for life, and fine.
  • Child-friendly process: It also provides for various procedural reforms, making the tiring process of trial in India considerably easier for children. The Act has been criticised as its provisions seem to criminalise consensual sexual intercourse between two people below the age of 18.

Contention/Criticisms around implementation of POCSO

Criticism in Definition of child

  • The Act defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years. However, this definition is a purely biological one, and doesn’t take into account people who live with intellectual and psycho-social disability.
  • A recent case in SC has been filed where a women of biological age 38yrs but mental age 6yrs was raped.
  • The victim’s advocate argues that “failure to consider the mental age will be an attack on the very purpose of act.”
  • SC has reserved the case for judgement and is determined to interpret whether the 2012 act encompasses the mental age or whether only biological age is inclusive in the definition.

Issue with the Mandatory Reporting feature

  • According to the Act, every crime of child sexual abuse should be reported. If a person who has information of any abuse fails to report, they may face imprisonment up to six months or may be fined or both.
  • Many child rights and women rights organisation has criticised this provision. According to experts, this provision takes away agency of choice from children.
  • There may be many survivors who do not want to go through the trauma of criminal justice system, but this provision does not differentiate.
  • Furthermore, mandatory reporting may also hinder access to medical aid, and psycho-social intervention.
  • It contradicts the right to confidentiality for access to medical, and psychological care.

Contradiction with the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971

  • The POCSO Act was passed to strengthen legal provisions for the protection of children below 18 years of age from sexual abuse and exploitation.
  • Under this Act, if any girl under 18 is seeking abortion the service provider is compelled to register a complaint of sexual assault with the police.
  • However, under the MTP Act, it is not mandatory to report the identity of the person seeking an abortion.
  • Consequently, service providers are hesitant to provide abortion services to girls under 18.

Issue with Legal Aid

  • Section 40 of the Act allows victims to access legal aid. However, that is subject to Code of Criminal Procedure.
  • In other words, the lawyer representing a child can only assist the Public Prosecutor, and file written final arguments if the judge permits.
  • Thus, the interest of the victim often go unrepresented.

Issue with Consent

  • The law presumes all sexual act with children under the age of 18 is sexual offence.
  • Therefore, two adolescent who engage in consensual sexual act will also be punished under this law.
  • This is especially a concern where adolescent is in relationship with someone from different caste, or religion.
  • Parents have filed cases under this Act to ‘punish’ relationships they do not approve of.

Shortcomings in implementation of POSCO Act

  • High number of cases: According to National Crime Records Bureau data, Cases registered under POCSO rose by 4.4 percent in 2016 over 2015.
  • In 93.6% cases of aggravated penetrative sexual assault on children, the perpetrator was known to the victim. The most common perpetrators were family members/friends/neighbours/other known persons.
  • Low reporting of crimes against boys: As per NCRB data, only 2.8% of all the instances of sexual crimes against children in 2017 were reported to be committed against boys, indicating that most cases remain undisclosed.
  • Elimination of Child pornography: There was a need felt to make rules for prescribing the manner in which pornographic material involving a child can be deleted, destroyed or reported.
  • Lack of provisions to protect children from assault in times of natural calamities and disasters

Historical child sexual abuse

  • Historical child sexual abuse refers to incidents that are reported late.
  • Historical abuse is not just confined to institutions but also includes intra-familial abuse where it is difficult for the child to report the offence or offender at the earliest point in time.
  • It often takes time for the child to recognise and comprehend the gravity of what transpired and become confident to report the offence.
  • At first glance, this may seem to run counter to the established principle of criminal law: that every act of crime must be reported at the earliest and any delay in filing the complaint dilutes the efficacy of the prosecution’s case.

Provision of Limitation of delay

  • Provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) prohibit judicial magistrates from taking cognisance of cases beyond a specific time period.
  • Cases involving child sexual abuse not amounting to rape as defined under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and prior to the enactment of POCSO in 2012, would presumably be classified under the lesser, and somewhat frivolous, offence of outraging the modesty of a woman (Section 354 of the IPC).
  • As such, any reporting of an offence, under Section 354 of the IPC, more than three years after the date of incident would be barred by the CrPC.
  • Such a scenario renders historical reporting of child sexual offences which took place before 2012 legally implausible. This presents an insurmountable legal barrier against the registration of historical child sexual offences which took place before 2012.
  • While the limitation provisions were incorporated into the CrPC to avert delayed prosecution, the circumstances around child sexual abuse cannot and must not be viewed in the same manner as other criminal offences.

Reasons for such delay

  • It is now understood that delays in reporting sexual abuse after a considerable passage of time from the date of offence may be due to factors such as threats from the perpetrator, fear of public humiliation, and absence of trustworthy confidant.
  • Another theory, proposed by Roland C. Summit, Professor of Psychiatry, is the accommodation syndrome — where the child keeps the abuse as a secret because of the fear that no one will believe the abuse, which leads to accommodative behaviour.
  • As such, with growing research and empirical evidence pointing to behaviour justifying delayed reporting, there is a need to amend the law to balance the rights of the victims and the accused.

Lack of Evidence Issue

  • One of the major drawbacks of delayed reporting is the lack of evidence to advance prosecution.
  • It is believed that there would be less than 5% chance for gathering direct physical and medical evidence in such cases.
  • India, in particular, suffers from a lack of procedural guidance as to how to prosecute historical cases of child sexual abuse. In contrast, the U.K. has issued detailed Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 to assist the police in such cases.

Need to review the law

  • In 2018, an online petition based on the plea of a child sexual abuse survivor gathered tremendous support – as the survivor-petitioner had unsuccessfully tried to register a complaint against her abuser after a delay of more than 40 years.
  • Consequently, the Union Ministry of Law and Justice, at the request of the then Minister for Women and Child Development, clarified that no time limit shall apply for POCSO cases.
  • Though this was a welcome clarification and would help strengthen the POCSO jurisprudence, it still fails to address the plight of children who were victims of sexual abuse before 2012.
  • There is an urgent need to reform and revise our laws to account for various developments such as historical reporting of child sexual abuse.

About POCSO Amendment Act 2019

  • Increases the minimum punishment (including death penalty) for penetrative sexual assault, aggravated penetrative sexual assault.
  • The earlier amendment allowed the death penalty only in cases of sexual assault of girls below 12 years but now it will be applicable to boys also.
  • Adds assault resulting in death of child, and assault committed during a natural calamity, or in any similar situations of violence into Aggravated penetrative sexual assault.
  • Tightened the provisions to counter child pornography. While the earlier Act had punishment for storing child pornography for commercial purposes, the amendment includes punishment for possessing pornographic material in any form involving a child, even if the accused persons have failed to delete or destroy or report the same with an intention to share it.
  • The Act defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a child including photograph, video, digital or computer-generated image indistinguishable from an actual child.

-Source: The Hindu

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