A minor girl victim support scheme that loses its way

There are many gaps in the Scheme for Care and Support to Victims under Section 4 and 6 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act

Updated - May 20, 2024 03:52 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2024 01:15 am IST

‘To avoid the roiling confusion that it is bound to happen if the scheme is implemented in its present form — it is a hotchpotch now — it is imperative for the Ministry of Women and Child Development to rectify it’

‘To avoid the roiling confusion that it is bound to happen if the scheme is implemented in its present form — it is a hotchpotch now — it is imperative for the Ministry of Women and Child Development to rectify it’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

On November 30, 2023, the Ministry of Women and Child Development notified the “Scheme for Care and Support to Victims under Section 4 & 6 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012”. The objective is to provide integrated support and assistance to minor pregnant girl child victims “under one roof” and facilitate immediate emergency and non-emergency access to services for long-term rehabilitation. For reasons best known to the Ministry though, the name of the scheme does not reflect the intent.

Oversights and inconsistencies

While it was for only abandoned or orphaned pregnant girls, initially, the scheme has now been expanded to include all pregnant girl victims under the mentioned sections of the POCSO Act. Therein lies the rub: besides some cosmetic inclusions, the scheme has not been redrafted to reflect the new inclusiveness, and many of the commensurate changes warranted have been left out.

The misleading nomenclature, either by oversight or deliberate, results in confusion (a constant feature that runs through the scheme), on two counts. It is important to note that victims under Sections 4 and 6 of the POCSO Act could be of any gender. Second, when the scheme is precisely for all pregnant girls/victims under 18 years, is it to obfuscate while acknowledging tacitly in its introduction that a disproportionate number of these girls are between 13-18 years and “In many of these cases, girls become pregnant”, the empirically established fact that adolescent sexuality is a stage of human development in which adolescents experience and explore sexual feelings, which would then put the onus on government to be proactive and provide sexual and reproductive health (SRH) information and services to youth rather than being reactive? The law has not, certainly, as indicated by sociological, medical and judicial data, proven to be very effective, largely because many of these cases involving pregnant girls arise out of marriage and non-exploitative, explorative sexual activity among young people. But this is in no way obscures the fact that there are cases of pregnancy because of sexual violence and exploitation, which also highlights the need for the government to step up its efforts in promoting and setting up safeguarding systems for children and adolescents, promoting SRH information and ensuring abuse prevention education for the entire community.

While ostensibly seeking to serve “every minor pregnant girl child victim”, the only definite categories are now those who continue, by choice or default, with their pregnancies and those who were not permitted by the court to undergo a medical termination of pregnancy (MTP). The scheme remains silent on whether the benefits will continue to be provided if the victim of a reported case opts for an MTP or has a miscarriage.

So also with a girl who may have attained 18 years subsequent to the case being reported and the pregnancy confirmed, or if her personal circumstances change in the course of time which may be up to 23 years of age and till when benefits of Mission Vatsalya (“a road map to achieve development and child protection priorities aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals”) can be accorded. It would be disappointing if this scheme meant for a very vulnerable group discriminates and actually leaves them short-changed.

The scheme is fraught with glaring oversights and inconsistencies with prevailing legislations, rules, orders and guidelines.

For instance, it is wrongly stated that Section 27, POCSO Act, 2012, which actually refers to the medical examination of a child, is to be taken into account to decide on the placement of the minor pregnant girl in institutional care/non-institutional care. It also erroneously implies that the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) can consent for the sexual assault medical examination of any child below 12 years of age, whether or not her parents/guardian are present.

Further, it is mentioned that in case of an MTP, the district magistrate, on advice of the district chief medical officer, shall order for an MTP to a government facility or registered medical practitioner. When every minute matters in these situations, this delaying stipulation is redundant and superfluous, and is not in consonance with the MTP Act.

It is also puzzling that the reference to MTP is reduced to two sentences that have been inserted at random in the 21-page document. Surely, keeping in mind the circumstances within which the pregnancy has occurred, conversations on the choices of discontinuing it or not must be facilitated at the outset.

Contrary to the rules

Victims under the POCSO Act, including those who are pregnant, do not automatically qualify as Children in Need of Care and Protection (CNCP). Benefits can be extended to them without categorising them as CNCP if the family or guardian is able to provide necessary care and protection. However, as indicated in the scheme, to avail its benefits, all pregnant girls will need to be considered as CNCP. This is contrary to Rule 4(4), POCSO Rules and Section 2(14), Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (JJ Act) and will entail in their unnecessary production before the CWC and the observance of all other attendant procedures under these legislations.

The scheme needs to unequivocally clarify whether all the entitlements for the girls who opt for institutional care listed in the “Process Flow of the Scheme”, also apply to those in non-institutional care, i.e., for girls who prefer to live with their family.

If the young mother chooses to surrender the baby, “the newborn may be placed in the designated SAA till the girl child victim attains the age of 18 years. Thereafter, she will be informed of the process of surrender as per Section 35 of the JJ Act”. This is contrary to the Adoption Regulations overseen by the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) which does not have any age thresholds for a mother to surrender the infant. The scheme now condemns the infant to an unnecessarily long period of institutionalisation (perhaps for a few years, as, in some cases, the mother may be a young teenager).

Monetary implications

Finally, given the ignominiously high position India occupies in the ranking of child marriages and teenage pregnancies, the burden on the exchequer, proposed by the scheme, is going to be multifold. To avail the scheme, each child who fulfils the new criteria — every reported case booked under the POCSO Act, 2012 of a pregnant girl under 18 years — would be given an initial payment of ₹6,000 and a monthly payment of ₹4,000 as stipulated in Mission Vatsalya up to the age of 21 years with possible extension of up to 23 years. With the prevailing mandatory reporting provision in the POCSO Act, 2012, pointing to an exponential increase of cases being reported by health authorities at the time of delivery or pregnancy-related hospital visits, a thorough analysis of health data and police data needs to be undertaken to plan, budget and provide for the scheme.

As gleaned from an RTI reply, 1,448 girls below 18 gave birth from January 2021 and October 2023 in a southern district. Even as a sample hypothetical working, if the average age of these young mothers at the time of delivery was 16 years, and taking into account that Mission Vatsalya allows support until the age of 23 years, the direct financial outlay for each mother as per the scheme would be ₹6,000 (a one-time payment)+₹4,000X84 months = ₹3,42,000. For 1,448 girls and their babies, it would work out to ₹49,52,16,000.

To avoid the roiling confusion that is bound to happen if the scheme is implemented in its present form — it is a hotchpotch now — it is imperative for the Ministry of Women and Child Development to rectify it, bearing in mind the provisions of the various prevailing legislations, rules, guidelines and protocols with which it will integrate and intersect. Data which can substantiate many of the aspects put forth will further give it the backing of solid evidence.

Vidya Reddy works with Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation. Sannuthi Suresh works with Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation

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