Each day we wake up to horrific incidents of child rape and abuse. Chennai, especially has had its share of spine-chilling cases in the recent past. With Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare Smriti Irani introducing amendments to the POCSO Act in the Rajya Sabha, we ask if legislation alone can curb the crimes.
Be it seven-year-old Hasini whose killer has been dealt a double life-sentence and the death penalty or the more recent Aynavaram case as it has come to be referred to, child rape cases are sending shock waves across the city. In the latest case in Thirumullaivoyal, a 4-year old girl was raped and killed. Her body was found dumped in a bucket in her own home. The suspect in this case- her own relative, an army veteran and a 60-year-old man! Even in the Aynavaram case the main accused is the building security who was a 66-year old man.
City folk are up in arms every time there is an incident, but when the media attention subsides, courts get working on disposing cases and with unimaginable delays, the only sufferer in all child abuse cases is only the child. Everyone else moves on. Speaking on this issue, dynamic and committed Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crimes against Women and Child Welfare) Jayalakshmi says, “As a woman and a member of the police fraternity I take such cases of abuse against children very seriously. Some of the cases have a deep emotional impact on us too. At the police department we operate a human force, we aren’t detached always. We feel the pain of the child and the families and investigate thoroughly. Sometimes media reporting or lack of will on the witness’s side makes the process harder for us to bring justice to the child”.
Elaborating on the hurdles the police department faces, she says, “Kids exhibit certain symptoms and parents initially report it and are angry about it. But owing to police station visits, counselling visits and trips to the medical centres for tests, families often think of backtracking. I would urge every family and citizen to speak up for children. We don’t have to construct a dialogue of shame and stigma against the child. It is the perpetrator who needs to be taken to task.”
Child rights activist Sherin Bosco who has been at the forefront of this cause says, “There is an alarming increase in cases of child sexual abuse being reported. But as the case progress we can see that many cases end up in acquittal. This is something quite concerning. Why does a child who initially complains of sexual abuse later turn hostile which subsequently leads to the acquittal of the accused. The trial courts work at snail’s pace which gives ample time to the accused and his lawyers to influence the victim and the witnesses in such cases which may lead to acquittal. The public prosecutors who are supposed to defend the victim quite often join hands with the accused and do little to help the prosecution. This is mainly because the public prosecutors are hardly accountable. No one is questioning the concerned authorities which are responsible to ensure that victims get justice.”
Speaking on the larger message to society, when courts pronounce an acquittal in a child rape case due to witnesses turning hostile, Sherin, says, “When there is delayed justice or no justice to the victims and if the perpetrators walk free, it delivers a message to the society that it is okay to abuse children. And it is no big deal. Bail can be granted to the accused but if the trial court doesn’t finish the trial within the mandated period, the bail should be cancelled which never ever happens.”
A parent of a child abuse victim who preferred to remain anonymous, says, “Never in my wildest dream did I think that this could happen to my child. We are a happy family, have all regular protective mechanisms in place. Still, it happened and we noticed it years later when our child completely withdrew into a shell. After much coaxing and with the help of school teachers we realised that our child was being abused by one of our relatives. Nowadays, we must be wary of who we are leaving our children with and how they spend their time. Even if they are at home, we should monitor the time they spend with other relatives. There are instances we read about after it happened to us where in there are grandparents, uncles and even fathers behaving badly with their kids. As a father and someone whose child’s innocence has been destroyed I would only say death penalty is the answer, but will our courts and governments have enough teeth to carry them through,” he asks.
While the new amendment as suggested by Smriti Irani includes pornography involving children, its storing or distribution, some ask, what about viewing. Should the government also monitor closely those accessing such sorts of videos? Latha Dubay, a social activist and event planner who has in the past conducted candle light vigils for victims, says, “Kids these days have phones given to them as a way of keeping them occupied whilst parents run errands or attend to other work. WhatsApp and online activities of kids need to be monitored closely. I have noticed kids as young as 10 or 12 having Facebook and Instagram accounts. Parents must make sure kids aren’t being groomed by some predator online.”
Whether the latest amendment adds more teeth to the law or not, one thing remains - death penalty is a distant dream as cases get delayed, witnesses turn hostile, families prefer to move on, but there is one victim who lives with it for a lifetime, and that is the child. For the sake of our children, one must speak up, stand up and rise up to occasion where kids need our support and understanding....