India is motoring towards claiming its position on the world stage, laying the foundation for an empowered population in the years to come. Yet, a country’s promise of a bright future and opportunities for its citizens of tomorrow would mean little without the guarantee of safety for its children today. A steady increase in the number of cases of child sexual abuse in the country over the past years has been acting as a tragic indictment of the diminishing sense of moral compass among people. When a child’s name begins trending on pornographic websites in the days following her rape, it triggers an emotion that is undefinable, appalling, and revolting to say the least. Every piece of news of sexual violence against a child each day across the country sets us back by years, reversing decades of progress.
Does the New POSCO Act Work As Deterrent?
It is with this vision that India had passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in 2012. It was the first holistic law of its kind in the country, that was enforced solely to deal with the issues of sexual abuse of children as well as child pornography. The Act sought to move beyond the provisions of the Indian Penal Code to define the procedure and increase the scope of reporting offences to include aggravated penetrative sexual assault by a person in position of authority. In view of the rising incidence of child sexual abuse and the infiltration of social media into our lives, there was a need felt to strengthen the existing law to help bring down the rate of child sexual abuse in the country.
The POCSO (Amendment) Bill 2019 passed recently is an important and long-pending step forward in that direction.
India has been witnessing an alarming rise in sexual offences against children and this amendment has come in at the right time, with a determined push from the Women and Child Development Ministry.
The Bill introduces certain critical components into the law, which include inter alia defining child pornography – as ‘using a child for pornographic purposes’ and for ‘possessing or storing pornography involving a child’ – and expanding the ambit of aggravated sexual assault.
While the former Act made storing of child pornography for commercial purposes a punishable offence, the amendment mandates punishment for possessing pornographic material in any form involving a child, even if the accused has failed to delete or destroy or report the same with an intention to share it.
The Bill also increases the mandatory minimum sentence to 10, and up to 20, years for the rape of a child below 16 years of age, and death penalty in cases of aggravated penetrative sexual assault. The amendment also recognizes the vulnerability of boys to sexual violence, thereby making it gender neutral. It has also been proposed to set up over 1000 Special Fast Track Courts for POCSO cases to ensure speedy justice that is sensitive to the fragile and vulnerable conditions of child survivors, and takes cognizance of the mental health and rehabilitation needs of this young demographic in their formative years of life.
Even today, social taboos continue to dictate a large part of our actions. Children with an unsupportive peer group, without the knowledge and the ability to sift the right from wrong often find themselves susceptible to sexual abuse. Even if they were aware of being subjected to sexual violence of any magnitude, very few would perhaps have the courage or resources to report it. Needless to say, having to live through unresolved trauma of this heinous nature through the most impressionable years could cause irreparable damage and set off a series of mental health issues that may go unaddressed for a large part of their lives. This could further possibly impact their ability to unveil their full potential through their life course.
The stringent law implemented and taking shape today in India is testament to the Government’s commitment to ensuring speedy child-friendly justice. It is imperative for every child in the country to have a safe space to grow up in and feel protected. Prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable and innocent, therefore is fundamental to preventing gross injustices from being meted out to young survivors as a result of tedious courtroom delays and lenient laws which the new Bill is designed to circumvent.
(The author Bhavani Giddu, is a public health and child rights advocacy communications professional. She can be reached on Twitter @bgiddu. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. FIT neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)