Geetha* says she remembers feeling helpless and daunted when she decided to file a complaint after she found out that her husband had sexually abused their daughter. Apart from her daughter and her having to constantly recount what had happened, she said she was left uncomfortable and confused at various points during the investigation — having to explain how she had remained unaware of the abuse, and often wishing that someone would just patiently listen to her.
It will be 10 years this November, since the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act came into force. On May 22, 2012, Parliament passed the legislation. It came into force on November 14 that year. This comprehensive law provides for protection of children from sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography, while safeguarding the interests of children at every stage of the judicial process through child-friendly mechanisms for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and speedy trial through special courts.
The number of cases registered under the POCSO Act in Tamil Nadu has seen a steady increase
In November 2021, following a spate of allegations of sexual abuse on school campuses, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin asked for the strict implementation of the POCSO Act and urged departments to work cohesively to ensure justice to the victims.
This March, in a statement that drew him appreciation from child rights activists, Mr. Stalin responded to concerns raised about the increase in the number of cases filed under the POCSO Act, saying that this showed that people had the faith to come forward and report. He added that there should be no delays in resolving such cases.
While awareness and reporting of cases might have steadily increased over the last decade, the journey from there till the case comes up for trial is what needs attention, activists say. There are a number of responders who are integral to a case before it comes to trial — the police, the healthcare system in the form of hospitals if a child consents to an examination and child protection bodies, including the Child Welfare Committee and the District Child Protection Units. Their response is often what can make or break a case.
“It is not the disposal, acquittal or conviction which matters, but the process and whether it is an enabling experience for the survivors and their families. Many a time, the present way of processing these cases takes away all their agency, and the focus should be on the victims, and helping the family regain some control over their lives,” said Vidya Reddy, of Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse.
In Madurai last month, allegations surfaced about a science teacher of a government school having sexually abused 33 girls. Advocate Nirmala Rani, who led a fact-finding committee, recalled how the family members of the accused were crowding outside the gates of the school a few days after the complaints came to light.
City-wise distribution of POCSO cases as on December 12, 2020 (total of year-wise cases from 2012)
|No. of cases
“The POCSO Act has provisions for the protection of the victims, and yet things like this continue to happen — to psychologically influence and intimidate the girls who complained. While we are working with and supporting the girls through this investigation, it has not been without hostility from various agencies working on the case so far,” she said.
The 33 girls will be taken to court next week to get their statements recorded by a judicial magistrate under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. “Instead of their having to travel in large batches, being taken to a hostile environment, guidelines can be framed by the High Court in such cases, wherein there are a large number of victims, for a judge to come to a familiar environment and record their statements. There is no legal bar on this suggestion and our focus should be on supporting and making the process easier for children,” Ms. Nirmala said.
This support and empathy is what victims and their families expect of the various agencies that deal with a case once they decide to file a complaint and take it forward.
For Geetha, the way in which the case was processed added to her initial fears of going to the police station for the first time and proceeding with an investigation. “If someone was there at the police station to patiently listen to us, I would have felt at ease. I felt like I wasn’t given any respect and the way they talked to me was very condescending,” she recalled.
She faced a volley of questions about why she was unaware of the abuse and said she felt like crying and couldn’t say anything. “In multiple instances during the investigation, my daughter and I were asked to recount details which we had already provided,” she said.
But she is not the only one in this predicament. Around six months ago, Reena* lodged a police complaint under the POCSO Act after she found out that her daughter was sexually abused by an acquaintance. “When she was taken for medical tests, it was carried out in an open labour ward where there was a woman giving birth, among the other patients. It was traumatising for her,” she says. The process, she explains, was also harrowing. “We were given multiple forms and weren’t even given a chance to go through them properly,” she says. They weren’t informed of their right to refuse or consent to the examination, treatment and collection of evidence.
Ms. Nirmala Rani says there is a Supreme Court judgment on the medical examination and the protocols have been laid down, but they are often not implemented. “There are still cases in which the two-finger test is used. Most often, the examination happens in the labour wards, which is traumatic for victims,” she said, underscoring the need for all agencies, involved in the investigation of POCSO Act cases, to adhere to the protocols.
As part of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Rules, 2020, all victims are supposed to be handed over Form A, which details the entitlement of children who have suffered sexual abuse to information and services.
“This is like the victim’s Bill of Rights and gives them an idea of what assistance they can seek, including legal aid, counselling, and most importantly, copies of the FIR that will help them file for interim compensation. They are, however, not made aware of this form in most cases,” Ms. Reddy said.
The POCSO Act states that there is an eligibility for interim compensation to meet the immediate need of an affected child for relief and rehabilitation. “All victims should be encouraged to file for compensation, and the awarding of it is at the discretion of judges. There shouldn’t be any hindrance to this,” she added.
At present, however, there is a vast variation in the compensation awarded in different cases. Victims in cases that also go to the Juvenile Justice Board often find it hard to apply for and receive compensation.
For parents like Geetha who hoped for a person to be present at the station and initially guide them, a community liaison officer of sorts would help. The POCSO Act, too, allows for the appointment of ‘support persons’ to provide assistance to the child — to liaise between the child and family, and the police, courts and other authorities, besides offering mental health, medical and other assistance.
It has been six months since Reena first filed a complaint and a charge sheet is yet to be filed. “Officials involved in the investigation have been transferred or have changed; having one single point of contact who is familiar with the case would help us,” she adds. While she sought out the guidance of a city-based organisation on the POCSO Act, the process and the subsequent legalese involved, she says she can’t imagine how daunting the whole process would be for someone without access to such resources.
Jim Jesudoss, founder, Sakthi Vidiyal, stresses the need for constant awareness-building for various stakeholders, including the police, parents, teachers and the community at large. “Since the Act came into force in 2012, we have definitely moved from under-reporting (see graph). There is definitely a growth in awareness of its provisions. We, however, need to have a relook at the Act itself, given how times have changed. The Act also does not factor in the consent of those below 18 years of age — many cases we deal with are elopement cases involving teenagers and adolescents,” said N. Lalitha, member of the Child Welfare Committee, and an advocate at Madras High Court.
In January 2021, the Madras High Court too spoke about how several cases booked under the POCSO Act fell into the category of the elopement of teenagers, and said it was high time the Act was amended appropriately.
In Madurai, Salem and Tiruvannamalai districts, the government transferred cases involving girls aged 16-18 to the Mahila courts from the POCSO Act courts last year, in an attempt to reduce the burden on special courts.
“The Act does not acknowledge consent below 18 years of age and even if it is a consensual relationship, it is treated as an offense. Once booked under the Act owing to elopements or such relationships, it greatly impacts the lives of these youngsters,” says Seema Agarwal, Director General of Police, Chairman, Tamil Nadu Uniformed Services Recruitement Board. She formerly headed the State Crime Records Bureau. She called for a review of the Act for a suitable amendment to be made.
Zone-wise distribution of cases in the State
# North Zone (Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu, Tiruvallur, Vellore, Ranipet, Tirupattur, Tiruvannamalai, Villupuram, Kallakurichi, Cuddalore) - 3,709
# West Zone (Salem, Namakkal, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Coimbatore, Erode, Tiruppur, The Nilgiris) - 3,305
# Central Zone (Tiruchi, Perambalur, Ariyalur, Karur, Pudukkottai, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam) - 2,286
# South Zone (Madurai, Virudhunagar, Dindigul, Theni, Ramnad, Sivaganga, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, Thoothukudi, Kanniyakumari) - 5,100
# Railways (Chennai and Tiruchi) - 27
(*Names changed to protect identity)