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The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act

By Sandra Albert

In the light of the rise in child sexual abuse being reported from Meghalaya in the media, it is worthwhile revisiting the POCSO Act. Counsellors at the ‘one stop crisis centre’ set up at Ganesh Das Hospital in Shillong have encountered several situations in which it was difficult to work out a solution. In their experience most episodes of child sexual abuse are committed by someone known to the child; often a family member and not a stranger. Dealing with these situations needs sensitivity and training as they pose particular challenges especially when the crime is committed by a family member. For instance, in one case, a mother who initially supported the registering of a complaint of the sexual abuse of her daughter by the stepfather, returned a few days later pleading with the counsellors to permit her to withdraw the complaint. She explained that her Christian values compelled her to forgive her husband! To the bewildered question of the counsellor, “But what about your daughter?” came the response, “Oh I will send her away to my mother”. Here a woman’s own insecurities made her choose her spouse over her daughter. But child abuse is a criminal offence and we need to apprise ourselves about the legal dimensions in order to make better decisions.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) is one of India’s progressive laws. It particularly pays attention to dealing sensitively with the abuse victim or survivor. Understanding that the child is always at a disadvantage when faced with an adult manipulative perpetrator who is more powerful, the law supports in multiple ways.

A notable feature of the law is that it covers a wide variety of offences including inappropriate touch, showing of pornographic material to children, and all forms of penetrative sexual assault.

POCSO upholds mandatory reporting so that doctors, teachers or any adult who recognises that abuse is occurring, is mandated to report it to the nearest police station, failing which the person can be held accountable. This is done to ensure that institutions, schools and families do not try to brush aside or hide such cases.

The POCSO Act also provides for the establishment of Special Courts for the speedy trial of such offences, something that is yet to be initiated in Meghalaya State. As per the Act ‘the State Government shall in consultation with the Chief Justice of the High Court, by notification in the Official Gazette, designate for each district, a Court of Session to be a Special Court to try the offences under the Act’. The Special Court is to create a child-friendly atmosphere and protect the child from having to see the accused at the time of testifying.

The POCSO Act has nine chapters each dealing with various aspects starting with definitions, the range of sexual assaults, aggravated assault, punishments for perpetrators, and the environment in which a statement from a child be recorded. A child as per the definition in this Act is anyone who is younger than 18 years of age.

Chapter 2 describes the various sexual offenses against the child, and the prescribed range of punishments. The detailed provisions are intended to leave little room for ambiguity. For example, penetrative sex goes beyond the obvious to include inserting ‘any object or a part of the body, not being the penis, into the vagina, the urethra or anus of the child or makes the child to do so with him or any other person’ and the perpetrator applying ‘his mouth’ to the said body part of the child.

The sub-section on ’Aggravated sexual assault and punishment’, covers situations in which such crimes are committed by persons in authority such as police, armed forces, public servants, staff of hospitals, and educational and religious institutions.

Penalties range from 10 years imprisonment extendable to life imprisonment for penetrative sex, 5 years for inappropriate touch and up to three years for sexual harassment including showing of pornographic material to a child.

Several guidelines are provided for making the child comfortable and recording her/his statement in a sensitive manner. The statement is to be recorded at the child’s residence or ‘at the place of his choice and as far as practicable by a woman police officer not below the rank of subinspector’. The officers should avoid being in uniform, should protect the identity of the child and should ensure that at no point of time the child comes in contact in any way with the accused.

The POCSO Act also mandates that ‘the Central Government and every State Government, shall take all measures to ensure that— the provisions of this Act are given wide publicity through media including the television, radio and the print media at regular intervals to make the general public, children as well as their parents and guardians aware of the provisions of this Act’. Likewise Government officers are also to be given the necessary training periodically for implementing the provisions of the Act.

Some of our officers and health workers from Meghalaya have been trained, but we need to pay attention to the quality of training. Informal discussions with our counsellors who have been sent for training elsewhere suggests they were mainly talk shops with little practical skills of relevance gained. In the words of a counsellor “I don’t think we learnt much….and when they start talking in Hindi we switch off”.

As a long term measure good quality sex education needs to be imparted to young people across the state by trained facilitators. Children need to be taught about safe and unsafe touch, about personal boundaries and about consent; not just to report abuse but to not become perpetrators themselves. Some NGOs and educational institutions are making small scale efforts but large gaps especially in rural areas continue to exist.

It takes an entire community to protect a child, so we need to sensitise and build awareness at all levels particularly leaders in the community so that atrocities are actually recognised and dealt with, not treated flippantly or swept under the mat. The fast track courts need to be set up on an urgent basis. One stop crises centres should be available at the district level and not just centrally in Shillong.

romote a safe, nurturing environment for our children, we need to have zero tolerance to rape and child sexual abuse, a principle implicit in the POCSO Act.

(Dr Sandra Albert is Director Indian Institute of Public Health Shillong, PHFI and a member of ICARE).

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