POCSO survivors left in the lurch

A decade into the enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, the system still fails to properly support, socially integrate, and rehabilitate the survivors as many aspects of the Act remain unaddressed.

Updated - December 09, 2022 01:23 pm IST

Published - December 08, 2022 08:44 pm IST - KOLLAM

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi


In her red salwar and pigtails, Jasmine looks like any other adolescent. Her favourite subject is physics and the 15-year-old was a class topper till she dropped out of school. The rape survivor was first moved to a shelter when she was 13 and the perpetrator is currently undergoing a seven-year prison term.

She was sent back home during the COVID-19 outbreak, only to return after a year, and this time with her newborn. She had given birth at her ramshackle home on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border and was later taken to a public health centre with a postpartum infection. It was the hospital authorities who reported the case.

She had struggled through a risky teenage pregnancy with zero support. While her family seemed negligent towards her plight, the authorities failed in ensuring the safety and welfare of a child victim. 

Editorial | Considering consent: On POCSO Act and the age of consent

Sheeba was abused by different men in 2018 and 2019 before she was rescued by the authorities. Despite her vulnerable domestic circumstances, the Palakkad-resident was back with her family soon. In June this year, her family filed a missing person complaint and the girl was traced from Thiruvananthapuram in August. She had been drugged and repeatedly raped for over 40 days at four locations in the State during the period. While 14 cases under the POCSO Act were registered, medical reports revealed she was subjected to consistent abuse and perhaps more persons were involved. 

When Naina killed herself in early 2022, she was an 18-year-old ravaged by multiple incidents of sexual abuse. As a child she was raped by several men, including relatives, and the trauma had left her in a fragile mental condition. Though more than a couple of cases under the POCSO Act were registered in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts, she was denied her most crucial need — therapy. Her family says she was not offered any shelter or counselling despite previous attempts to commit suicide. 

These are not random cases but the tip of an iceberg as hundreds of children continue to suffer in silence as the authorities descend into an indifferent blame game. A decade into the enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, the system still fails to properly support and rehabilitate the survivors as many aspects of the Act remain unaddressed.

While 90% of the survivors are sent back to vulnerable homes where they once again face multiple forms of violence, including sexual abuse, some drop out of school. Most of the girls, especially underage mothers from socially and economically backward sections, battle different types of physical and mental health issues making it impossible for them to recover from the trauma. 

Challenges of institutional care 

At an isolated shelter in the State capital lives around 20 pregnant minor survivors along with some other girls who have undergone medical termination of pregnancy. They belong to different districts, far from their families, trapped in a world of shared anguish.

For a child from Kasaragod, everything from food and language will be unfamiliar and she may find the new environment hardly comfortable. “Currently, the system is to shift all pregnant minor survivors to Thiruvananthapuram and it is a time they yearn for parental care. If the girl belongs to the northern parts, it is not possible for the family to visit her often and she will have to travel to the respective district for the proceedings of the case,” says an official. 

According to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, a child shall be placed in institutional care as a step of last resort after making reasonable inquiry. Tribal marriages, which are part of their custom, is another issue area since the Act does not distinguish between underage marriage and child abuse. For a pregnant girl from the hills of Wayanad, whose husband is in prison, the shelter home in Thiruvananthapuram is hardly an ideal place.

“The best option is to rehabilitate them locally as the children have often expressed their desire to stay near their homes. What we can do is to spread awareness with the help of educated youngsters from their own community. We can provide them training and the process will be easier as they will have better access compared to outsiders,” says B. Babita, member, Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

While most shelters take care of the material needs of the children, their social isolation get aggravated. The staff at both private and government shelters treat them like prisoners and, at times, they face bullying and even sexual abuse from older residents.

Also read: POCSO cases on the rise as exposure to social media leaves children vulnerable

“They are moved to a shelter when the perpetrator is a close blood relation or the child is living in a home where outsiders can easily break into. Right now most shelter homes add to their ordeal and we cannot blame them for trying to escape from these places,” says a former member of the Child Welfare Council and the Juvenile Justice Board. 

Short and long-term repercussions

Sunitha, who is undergoing therapy for the past 18 years, is wracked with guilt and shame over her baby boy, who was taken away from her when she was 14. For her, healing is a long process and missing medication a risk.

Neha, who belongs to an affluent family, was abused by a family member which led to the divorce of her parents. Three years after the incident, her mother was shocked to see her provocative pictures on social media. Her counselling sessions had ended long back and nobody was monitoring the seemingly-normal child. “My mom had called me a homebreaker and I am practising to be one,” the 15-year-old says defiantly. 

When a case is registered under the POCSO Act, it sets a long, painful process in motion for the child. From reliving the crime several times for the police and court formalities to grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, they struggle at every point.

Repeated probing as part of the judicial process deepen their wounds. The development of psychiatric disorders is common among the young victims and in many cases, they are left unaddressed.

“We need consistent individual counselling and family therapy for some cases but in our system, everything ends after a period. In the past five years, many young girls have committed suicide at their homes, shelters, and aftercare facilities as we failed to offer them steady support,” says a ChildLine coordinator. 

According to a POCSO court judge, a percentage of the victims are parentless children staying with relatives while some others have mental disabilities. “In one case, the court had recommended treatment since the child’s mental capacity was low. But follow-up was an issue since both her mother, who herself was having mental health issues, and the aged grandmother were unable to take care of the child. The Women and Child Welfare Development Department, along with the police, was handling the hospital visits for a while but none of this is a permanent solution. What we need is a proper system and local-body level facilities to rehabilitate the children,” he says. 

While sexual abuse, underage pregnancies, abortions, and motherhood can lead to a string of health issues, the trauma will trigger anxiety, depression, and trust issues in children. It manifests in different forms, including psychosomatic symptoms, and the treatment timeline will be different for each individual case.

“POCSO survivors require proper professional help that involves continuous monitoring, counselling, and medication. The caretakers approach us only when there is some management issue at the shelter and there will be no regular follow-up. Frequent change of counsellors and doctors mean they are made to repeat their traumatic experiences over and over again, which should be avoided. What we need is a holistic approach and a permanent team headed by a psychiatrist and which includes a clinical psychologist and a psychiatric social worker,” says Alfred V. Samuel, president, Indian Psychiatric Society (Kerala Branch). 

Official apathy 

While what the children need is systematic restorative care that involves long-term follow-up to build physical and psychological resilience, what they get is a raw deal in the name of rehabilitation. Instead of offering adequate psycho-social support to survivors, officials often make it into a cold and clinical process devoid of any compassion.

For the department staff, the area where Jasmin, the survivor mentioned in the opening paragraph, hails from is a POCSO ‘hotspot’ and is not practical for them to travel to a hostile neighbourhood to check on the girl. There are senior officials who believe POCSO cases happen when hormones go haywire and indirectly blame the survivors for their plight. They think they are not expected to motivate the children to continue their education after Class 10.

“Most of the Plus Two students drop out of school. As per the law, free and compulsory education should be provided to all children in the age group of six to 14 years. But we can never force those above the age of 14 to attend school,” says an official. 

When POCSO survivors are sent back to their homes, the district CWC is responsible for making sure that the children are safe. Though the department is supposed to monitor the children till they turn 18, it happens only on paper. “The follow-up will continue for hardly a year as we do not have any manpower or resources for more. The rest depends on the luck of the child,” says a case worker. 

In 2022, a total of 1,363 POCSO cases were registered in Kerala till October while 1,568 cases were filed in 2021. “Kerala is a progressive society when we consider many factors, but the rise in POCSO cases indicates a sick societal mindset. Changing it is a difficult task and we need a multi-pronged strategy for that. A large percentage of our population is blissfully unaware about child rights and sometimes even law enforcement officers, who are among the first responders, fail them,” says K.V Manoj Kumar, Chairperson, Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

The Kerala High Court had observed that POCSO cases were being investigated by police personnel not aware of the rights of children or trained to handle the cases in a child-sensitive manner. While the commission is planning to conduct a State-wide campaign to sensitise uniformed officers, many other departments and officials are in need of proper training to handle the cases. “We have to educate them that the rehabilitation does not end with offering legal support or preventing further vulnerability. There is a long road ahead,” he adds. 

(Names of all victims changed to protect their identities) .

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