Weak laws encourage child abusers

The recent incident of a five year old being raped and murdered by her neighbour in New Delhi is yet another example of the increasing numbers of children who face sexual abuse. Add to that the case of a child from Kanpur who was sexually abused by her school teacher and died as a result, and a disturbing trend of children under threat will emerge. But in Uttar Pradesh such instances have not been few. In Sept 2009, 13 year old girl was found dead and her 7 year old friend was found lying unconscious with her hands amputated and knife wounds and burn marks on her body on the railway tracks near Manak Nagar, in Lucknow.

Both residents of Kasuni Slums near Manak Nagar went missing in Sept 2009 and when their families tried to lodge a police complaint they were driven away by the thana incharge at Krishnanagar Police Thana. For four months  no police action was initiated, the surviving child was never presented before a magistrate and neither was she presented before the Child Welfare Commission (CWC) in Lucknow.

Ironically even though the child's body bore visible signs of injuries and sexual abuse the medical examination just mentioned a head injury and no other wounds. Nor was  there any mention of sexual abuse which is what both the girls had possibly suffered. There was no investigation to ascertain the cause of death of one child either. While a shocked and traumatized surviving child remembered being dragged into a white car by some men with her friend, she does not recall how the wounds were caused. Police action remained non-existent as the case has been closed with the report saying the girls had fallen from running train.

In another instance in May 2005, 13 years rag picker was abducted by some boys and brutally raped for hours together and then thrown in front of the Aashiana Police Station. In what turned out to be the  very high profile Aashiana Rape case, the child, today, five years on is still living in hiding as the culprits have not been brought to book. The accused  have taken refuge as juveniles and their case is being tried in Juvenile Courts. The main accused had for years no charges framed against him as he too sought impunity  as a juvenile. The victim has been forced to live away from her parents since owing to threat to her life.

While such examples of sexual abuse as an offence against children have been a much debated issue worldwide, In India these incidents are yet to be termed as a criminal offence.

And this despite the fact that studies have revealed that 3/4 of Indian children from various backgrounds be it working as domestic help, street children or even children living in protection institutions all have suffered some form of sexual abuse.

According to a study conducted by Women and Child Development Ministry New Delhi, India has the highest number of sexually abused children in the world!

The study, which was conducted in 2007 in collaboration with UNICEF and Save the Children an NGO working for children in abusive situations, placed the number as high as 53%. It also stated that two  out every three child interviewed confirmed being physically abused. And the abuse was by someone known to the child who was in a position of trust.

These findings were further confirmed by Union Government report in 2008 which said that Indian children are the regular victims of some form or the other of sexual abuse.

While it is estimated that 19% of the world’s children are living in India and 440 million people in the country are below the age of 18, such a observation automatically places the number of minors in the country as high as 42%. For such a huge number to be victims of sexual abuse is indeed appalling.
But what is even more disgraceful is the fact that India having signed the United Nations Convention of Rights of child, it had also pledged to protect children from sexual abuse.

Ironically with the highest numbers of sexually abused children in the country, India still does not have a special law dealing with sexual abuse particularly against children.

Sad but also true is the fact that even the Juvenile Justice Act does not specifically address the issue of child abuse separately. In addition to that  even the India Penal Code does not spell out the exact definition of child abuse as a specific offence!

And with a increase in the numbers of such cases what options do the parents or organizations working to protect the child have when faced with fighting for the rights of a child who has gone through the trauma of sexual abuse?

Says G Shree Devi, Secretary Uttar Pradesh State Legal Services Authority, a GoUP department that takes up legal issues of all forms of violations of rights, "The national policy for children clearly declares that children are the supreme national asset of the country, it is our duty to uphold their right to protection from all forms of abuse and exploitation. It is true that as far as legal provisions are concerned the sexual offences against a minor has no separate provisions in the system. But after the Ruchika molestation case a new Sexual Offence Law has been proposed under the guidance of P Chidambaram. If the draft bill of the law is passed then even eve-teasers will get a sentence of seven years and molesters once their crime is proven will be punished with a sentence of two years in jail."

But is two years sufficient for such a heinous crime?

To which G Shree Devi responds, "The draft bill also has a section dealing with sexual abuse of a minor which clearly states that irrespective of the actual act of rape there will be a maximum punishment of 10 years in jail. Also the bill raises the age of a minor from 16 years to 18 years. This will also bring into purview child marriage as well and address cases of marital rape upon a minor.  So efforts are underway to make the punishment and law more stringent in cases of sexual abuse against a minor."

So far so good, says, Bharati Sharma, former Chairperson Child Welfare Committee, New Delhi who sensitizes members of CWC in various districts in the country, "In the cases of sexual abuse prompt police action is a must and since the culprits are usually known to the child effort must be made to nab them immediately to prevent other children from becoming victims. The Juvenile Justice Act 2007 clearly states the importance of educating a child against the threat of abuse but much more efforts are needed to ensure that information and awareness on how to protect themselves is provided to the child. A trust must be build in a child who can go to somebody and talk about the abuse they have been subjected too so that they can be protected and action can be taken on behalf of the child’s complaint. More options for rehabilitative care for victims of sexual abuse must be created. A plus point is that with the soon to be implemented Integrated Child Protection Scheme in 2011 by the Ministry of women and Child Welfare an integrated programme for child protection will be available in both urban and semi-urban areas. This must b made use of by all those working for welfare of children."

A fact which is also welcomed by Anuradha Verma, who is a counsellor with Saathi, an organization that works with children in difficult circumstances.

Says Anuradha, "Abused children need utmost care and protection as they continue to face abuse being trapped in a situation they are forced to live in. As the abuser is usually a close relative or a known person the child faces the sexual abuse on a regular basis until they are rescued. Such children are emotionally scarred for life and it takes long and regular durations of psychological counseling and trust building to help the child deal with the trauma. Unfortunately counseling for children is still not adequately available either in protection homes or rescue centers in UP where they are kept after being rescued. Lack of trained clinical psychologists and sensitized staff at these homes makes matters worse. This needs to be rectified immediately."

A grim but worrying situation indeed specially so when children have the right to be protected and safe as per Article 21 in the constitution of India. Will things improve post implementation of ICPS, we will just have to wait and see!

Anjali Singh
(The author is a senior journalist and also serves as the founding Director of Saaksham Foundation, Lucknow, India)