The recently released NCRB data shows a 13 percent decline in the cases of crime against children in the country. While on the face of it, it may seem like an encouraging statistic, but most activists working in the field of child rights are skeptical.
The consensus among activists is that this is not reflective of an actual decline in crime but more a reflection of decline in reporting of crime.
Nishit Kumar, founder director and MD of Center for Social and Behaviour Change Communication, whose organisation conducts sexual abuse awareness and sensitisation sessions in schools, had to move the operations online. “Recently a few children opened up to us during our online sessions about the abuse they faced at home. Clearly, crimes continued to be committed, but during the pandemic children had fewer opportunities to talk about it and seek help,” he said.
“A lot of men had been suddenly forced to stay home due to the lockdown. This made them feel emasculated and, in their anger, they lashed out at children and women at home.”Varsha Deshpande, Lawyer and Child Rights Crusader
A Claustrophobic Environment
The NCRB acknowledges that 96 percent of the cases of POSCO in 2020, were committed by those known to the children. Known abusers had more opportunities given the proximity, in practically claustrophobic circumstances, the children were forced to share with them, leaving no room for a quick distress call even.
Kumar, who has several years of experience working for children’s rights, says lack of access to child protection services was a major cause in the decline in reporting of crimes against children. “Childline workers were not made part of essential services in most states. Only West Bengal gave them essential worker travel passes very early in the lockdown. In many states, child rights workers could not reach vulnerable children due to movement restrictions. This situation became more acute in the second wave,” he added.
Interestingly, West Bengal shot to the top 5 states with respect to crimes against children with 10,248 cases registered in 2020, as compared to 6,191 cases in 2019 as per the NCRB data.
Deshpande, who worked to stop child marriages in Marathwada during the lockdown, says she saw a sharp uptake in the cases.
“We rescued a 10-year-old who was being married off to a taxi driver in Shirur. Parents were desperate for money due to the economic impact of the lockdown and they were resorting to selling their girls for 2-3 lakh rupees. We were working in that neighbourhood pre-pandemic and so someone alerted us. We somehow managed to reach on time and the taxi driver fled,” she said.
She acknowledges that it was tough to get information on time and prevent such marriages from taking place given the travel constraints.
Child marriages went up by almost 50 percent in 2020.
Lockdown Failed to Tackle Crimes Against Children
The lockdown also impacted the availability of legal services to child victims of abuse. Many parents were unable to afford legal fees due to their economic condition deteriorating. With courts going online and taking up only important matters or those related to bail, cases of crimes against children got pushed back.
As per the NCRB data, pendency of cases was around 95 percent as opposed to 90 percent in 2019.
“What was their criteria to decide which case is important? They had the time and wherewithal to hear Arnab Goswami’s case, but not that of child victims?” Deshpande lamented.
“Courts had asked jails to release accused to decongest jails; priority was given to bail pleas on this ground too. We saw a few cases, where the accused was given bail, without informing the victim. This put the children’s mental health in grave danger.”Nimisha Srivastava, Executive Director, Counsel To Secure Justice
“One of the girls we were counselling in a Delhi neighbourhood, shut herself inside her house for days. Her abuser who was out on bail, would make rounds of her house. She was severely traumatised by his presence in the neighbourhood. We counselled her over the phone to help her overcome her fear,” Srivastava, whose organisation works for access to reformative justice, recounts.
A 62-year-old man, who had molested a child was released on bail by a city court in Mumbai, in April on the grounds that seniors had weak immune systems and were vulnerable to the pandemic. Yet another accused in a POSCO case was granted bail by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court in June 2020 because the law enforcement agencies failed to file a chargesheet within the stipulated 90 days, citing pandemic constraints. The Bombay High court eventually passed an order in September 2020 that POSCO accused are not entitled to emergency parole.
In some cases, the bail hearings, served to re-traumatise the victims says Srivastava, who recalls the case of a gang rape victim who was called to court each time one of the accused filed a separate bail petition, in the middle of the pandemic.
The digital divide also impeded access to legal and counselling services. “Counselling child crime victims was a tough proposition even pre-pandemic, when it was done face to face. Doing it on the phone, when the children also had to attend online classes and had limited data plans, was a major challenge. As it is, it is very difficult for child victims to trust and open up to the counselor,” informed Srivastava.
In another case, child protection workers found it difficult to contact a pregnant 15-year-old rape victim, who had been kept in a government home, because the home was under quarantine.
Cyber Crimes Against Children
The internet itself, though, was not a safe space for children during the pandemic. The NCRB data records a massive rise in cyber-crimes, going up from 164 in 2019 to 842 in 2020.
Professor of law, and the first chair holder of UNCRC in India, Dr Asha Bajpai says that the system lacked a strategy to tackle crimes against children during the pandemic, compounding the problems of victims.
“For the future, we need to have the government, the police and the legal system draw up SOPs to prioritise cases of crimes against children, their investigation, hearings, recording of evidence etc."Dr. Asha Bajpai, Chair holder of UNCRC, India
She added that access to justice is a basic right in a democracy and provisions need to be made to ensure such access even during pandemic and emergencies.
(Kajal K Iyer has worked as a Television Journalist for 15+ years, primarily covering Maharashtra, with stints in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Goa. She writes mainly on legal matters and life and politics in Mumbai and tweets @Kajal_Iyer.)