I Survived Child Sexual Abuse. Here’s What POCSO Bill Must Rethink
Social activist Harish Iyer first shared his testimony of abuse on Smriti Irani’s show ‘Kuchh Dil Se’, 20 yrs ago.
The Parliament heard the discussion on amendments to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act bill (POCSO) in the august house on 1 August 2019. The amendment to the POCSO bill increases the punishment for the sexual abuse of children, to the death penalty, in cases of ‘aggravated penetrative sexual assault’.
Recently, quiz master-turned-politician, Derek O'Brien, shared his testimony as a survivor of child sexual abuse, on the floor of the Parliament. The MP of Nationalist Congress Party, Supriya Sule, quoted this author’s testimony while congratulating Woman And Child Welfare Minister, Smriti Irani, for the introduction of this amendment bill. It was nostalgic, because the last time Smriti Irani heard my testimony was in person, two decades ago, when she was hosting the show Kuchh Dil Se, where I was her guest.
While some may argue that we, the survivors, ‘bask in the glory’ of our stories, the truth is that these testimonies are important because every survivor who shares a story, helps another survivor (with an untold story) accept theirs.
And only when you own your past, can you work towards healing and be in the present.
However, I am not sure that this amended bill is a step in the right direction.
In 2007, the Indian government conducted a survey that revealed that one in two children are survivors of child sexual abuse. It also revealed that between the two sexes, the number of male survivors were more than the number of female survivors.
Despite the same government being in power until 2012, there was no law against child sexual abuse.
When this bill was first introduced in 2012, it was hailed as one of the most progressive measures in curbing the menace of child sexual abuse, more so because the POCSO bill recognised that all genders could be offenders and children from all genders could be the complainants. It also prescribed procedures to be followed by police, media and doctors, to ensure that children are treated with sensitivity during interrogation and examination. These points emerged from many consultations across the nation.
There is a factually incorrect narrative that is doing the rounds on the internet about POCSO being made gender-neutral in 2019.
The POCSO act was gender-neutral right from the time of its inception in 2012. It recognised that people from all sexes and genders could be perpetrators and also complainants.
Problematic Clause of ‘Mandatory Reporting’
The only challenge that I saw with POCSO was the introduction of the clause of ‘mandatory reporting’. It was put in place to ensure that police and doctors don’t dismiss the case. While it looks well-intentioned on paper, practically speaking, it is not possible to report all cases of child sexual abuse to the police. This is because sometimes the child is not equipped mentally to go through the rigmarole of police questioning.
Also, in many cases, the abuser is a member of the family, and the child has to not only come to terms with that reality, but also find adequate support.
In my experience, it is not uncommon for the abuser to be the parent of the child. While the culprits need to be brought to book, our first and foremost responsibility is towards the children and ensures that they are emotionally, financially and socially capable of dealing with the act of reporting. We cant see things from our lens and our sense of justice; we need to look at it from the child’s lens.
Amendment of POCSO
Afterthe Kathua rape case, the then Union Minister of Women & Child Development, Menaka Gandhi, suggested an amendment to POCSO with the provision of death penalty. The bill that was passed on 1 August, reflected the following.
- Aggravated Penetrative Sexual Assault is defined as (i) assault resulting in the death of child, and (ii) assault committed during a natural calamity.
- Aggravated Sexual Assault is defined as something when the offender is a close relative of the child and the assault injures the sexual organs of the child. And also when (i) the assault is committed during a natural calamity, and (ii) the act of administrating any hormone or any chemical substance to a child for the purpose of attaining early sexual maturity.
- The punishment for aggravated sexual assault has been increased from a minimum of 10 years of jail time and a fine, to a minimum of 20 years of jail time or death penalty.
A Deterrent In Reporting Child Sexual Abuse
I have heard testimonies of over 7 lakh survivors in the past 22 years. Most often the abuser is a member of the family, as mentioned above. To know that your family member could possibly be awarded death penalty, will put more psychological pressure on the child to abstain from reporting.
One fears that the death penalty could become a deterrent in reporting cases of child sexual abuse.
Also, to be clear, there is no stereotype of an abuser. They could be everyday people. The more the level of respect, the more you place someone on a pedestal, the social status ensures that they are not doubted, and that encourages them to abuse. If one in two children get abused, it could also mean that a proportionate number of adults and older children are abusers too. They are unassuming, and often, they could appear to be loving, caring people.
What Child Sexual Abuse Survivors Really Need
The call for death penalty is not based on research or the understanding of child sexual abuse in India which is mostly incestuous, and also class/caste-driven, where individuals from disadvantaged castes/classes are more susceptible to abuse by those in positions of power.
It would have helped greatly if procedures prescribed in POCSO 2012 were followed to the T. Here’s what we really need for survivors of child sexual abuse:
- Child-friendly police: We need child-friendly police stations, dedicated police force for handling child abuse cases (the present police force that sometimes works for 17 hours a day, would find it very difficult to follow these procedures), understanding the offence, and the social repercussions.
- Dedicated healthcare, sensitive media professionals: In the present scenario, hospital procedures and infrastructures are not helpful. We need dedicated rooms and spaces for physical examination of children in government hospitals, and the mass training of media professionals about the law (to prevent misreporting).
- Mental health programmes: Survivors carry the burden of their stories all their lives. As a survivor of aggravated sexual assault I can say that it is not something that heals completely. Survivors feel hate, anger and sometimes are very suicidal… some could also assume that the only way they could be powerful is by mimicking the acts of their offender. We need to introduce mandatory sensitisation programmes in all educational institutes and offices.
The Way Forward
The menace of child sexual abuse is an ongoing one. We need to have a plan to integrate survivors and build a society that teaches appropriate behaviour to everybody, and also the need to respect personal space and boundaries. Every school, college, office should have an all-round sensitisation training teaches personal space, boundaries and behaviour with peers, checking your privilege, understanding and engaging with people of different sexualities and genders, protection from sexual abuse, and safety education.
We need to be aware that when we are addressing a gathering, we are not only addressing probable survivors but also potential offenders.
We will build a better world by addressing the realities of our world.
A step in that direction, I appeal to all readers to join me in appealing to the HRD minister to introduce Sensitivity Training in all educational institutes. Click here to sign this Change.org petition. Let’s together take a proactive step towards protection of children from sexual abuse.
(Harish Iyer is an equal rights activist who tweets at @hiyer. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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