A status report on the implementation of the POCSO Act in Tamil Nadu shows a staggering pendency of cases; activists argue that delays put victims through the traumatising process of recollecting incidents repeatedly
A stalker convinced a 14-year-old girl to go on a motorcycle ride with him by promising that once she did that, he would leave her alone. He took her on a ride, raped her at an isolated spot, and showing the footage he had shot of her on that day, he repeated his crime frequently. This continued until she became pregnant and was subjected to questioning by her family. Her pregnancy was terminated, and a police complaint was registered. That was in 2015. Three years on, her case has not reached anywhere near closure.
While her Class V classmates were in the playground, an 11-year-old deaf-mute girl was sitting alone in a classroom of a government school in Tiruvallur district. A middle-aged teacher raped her. The crime came to light because the traumatised child refused to go to school thereafter. A police complaint was made against the teacher, who was charged with aggravated penetrative sexual assault in October 2016. This case too has not come to trial so far.
In 2014, five persons trespassed into a thatched hut of an agricultural labourer at a village in Vazhapadi, Salem district, picked up a 10-year-old girl from there and took her to a cave, where they gang raped her repeatedly. She died of asphyxia.
These cases were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, a special law that came into force in 2012 with the specific intent of bringing to book those who commit sexual offences against children. There is increasing concern in the country that despite its special focus on children and specific child-friendly provisions, too many cases are piling up, and thousands are pending across the country.
In Tamil Nadu, the pendency is over 2,003 cases, the Supreme Court was recently informed. Of these, 219 have been pending for the last three years, and 509 for more than two years. As many as 1,275 cases are pending for the last year and a half. The pendency in Tamil Nadu is significant, although the problem is not as acute as it is in Uttar Pradesh, where the figure is 30,884, or Madhya Pradesh, where it is 10,117 cases.
A few days ago, the Supreme Court directed all High Courts to set up a committee of judges to monitor the progress in trials under the POCSO Act. It also wanted a police special task force to deal with the cases, adhere to time-frames for trials fixed in the Act, and implementation of all child-friendly procedures prescribed.
But lawyers and activists say the issues involved are not merely about delayed trials and insufficient convictions. There are systemic, societal and procedural problems in the way the POCSO Act is being implemented.
How trials drag on
“Children who have been sexually abused are traumatised by the experience. And, when the trial drags on, they continue to suffer,” says V. Kannadasan, who appears for victims of child sexual abuse. “Her parents wait endlessly for justice, while the child has given up her dreams since she is scared of going to school,” he said. He points out that a case under the POCSO Act must be disposed of within one year from the date of the offence.
“Any delay in the trial will end in the acquittal of the offender. In POCSO cases, due to the passage of time, children may not remember what the offender did to them. There is no protection to witnesses in such cases,” Mr. Kannadasan says.
State Commission for Protection of Child Rights chairperson M.P. Nirmala said, “Apart from lapses on the part of investigating agencies and the prosecution in a few cases, there is an overall lack of knowledge among stakeholders in handling POCSO cases. Delay on the part of the victims’ parents in filing complaints and social stigma attached to sexual abuse are contributing factors for the pendency.”
On the delay in POCSO cases, City Public Prosecutor Gowri Ashokan says, “Quite often, police are unaware of the provisions of the Act and come up with sections not applicable in a case. We have to return the file and get it altered, to reflect the right sections.”
Ms. Ashokan also says defence counsel filing petitions to recall witnesses even after the trial reaches the final stage was another factor that hampers an expeditious trial.
The number of cases registered under the POCSO Act may have increased over the years, but the conviction rate remains alarmingly low. In 2017, for instance, 1,586 cases were registered in Tamil Nadu. Of these, charge-sheets were filed in 703 cases. The courts convicted the accused in eight cases, and 59 ended in acquittal.
Lack of understanding
Vidya Reddy of Chennai-based Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse sees the high acquittal rate as a consequence of the inadequate understanding of sexual violence in society. “This lack of understanding is going to reflect in the response at every stage,” she says, pointing out that the police and the NGOs working in the area, health professionals, members of the child welfare committees and even the judiciary are all, naturally, drawn from society.
Unless the issue of sexual violence was addressed appropriately from the beginning, cases would end in acquittal, says Ms. Reddy. For instance, she says, the police believe that investigation would be difficult in a case of sexual assault unless the assault was penetrative. She adds that she has come across cases in which the police dissuade the families from pursuing a case of sexual assault, or they include sections related to penetrative assault in the FIR even though the victim herself did not claim so. “What will happen then? Acquittal!” she says.
There is no dearth of special courts under the POCSO Act, as all the 32 Mahila Courts in the State also try POCSO cases. However, there is a view that the process, from investigation to prosecution, is not always child-friendly. Advocate and social activist U. Nirmala Rani from Madurai says, “From medical examination to trial, things are not conducted as per procedure set by law. I have studied nearly 400 cases across the State. Doctors still use the two-finger test for child victims, something banned by the Supreme Court. And as for a child-friendly atmosphere, it does not prevail in all courts.”
Awareness remains a problem, most stakeholders say. The awareness level among teachers about the POCSO Act, for instance, is very low in the districts. Jayanthi Ravichandran, chairperson of CWC, Cuddalore, says, “Sometimes, teachers themselves encourage students to get married when they are below 18 years. This is terribly wrong. In this regard, I have spoken to the C.E.O. to send a circular to all the schools in Cuddalore district.”
Deputy Commissioner of Police, Adyar (since transferred) M. Rohit Nathan says there is no data on offenders from school managements, which would help prevent them from taking up any employment that puts them in contact with children. “We recently came across a schoolteacher, who had committed sexual assault on a child in Tiruvannamalai, being transferred to a school in Chennai. He repeated the offence here. If there is a database, a safety mechanism can be evolved to avoid recurrence of the crime by the same people,” he says.