Delayed justice for child abuse victims

Among 19 metropolitan cities, Delhi has the worst record when it comes to crimes against children. The conviction rates are dismally low and even though POCSO cases have to be decided within a year, this rarely happens

 

In January this year, a 6-year-old child went up to her mother and said she did not feel right, she was experiencing pain and difficulty in relieving herself. Much coaxing later, the woman discovered her husband of eight years and the father of her two little girls had raped the child. Nine months later, the mother still fights for her husband to be taken into custody, having allegedly fled Delhi.

This case makes for the thousands of others waiting for investigation. The most recent National Crime Records Bureau report of 2019 shows just how many Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act cases have been pending investigation.

In terms of ‘Court Disposal of Crime against Children’ in 2019, according to the NCRB data there were 13,541 cases pending from the previous year, in Delhi, whereas 2,386 cases were sent for trial in 2019. Then cases in which trials were completed were just 1,523 while 1,544 were disposed of by courts.

This even when Delhi makes for the metropolitan city with the biggest chunk of crimes against children, amongst 19 cities, with 7,565 cases of crimes against children reported, followed by Mumbai at 3,640 cases of crimes against children.

Furthermore, we just have to look at the NCRB data on the ‘Police Disposal of Crime against Children’ to see how quickly law enforcement react and investigate accusations. In Delhi, cases pending police investigation from the previous year were at 8,609 while cases reported during the year in 2019 were 7,783 bringing it to a total of 16,392 cases up for investigation. Considering all the pending cases, in 2019 the total cases disposed by Delhi Police was 7,371.

A massive 16,392 cases for investigation was brought before the Delhi Police in 2019. While 8,609 were those pending from the previous year, 7,783 cases were those brought in 2019

And still, this year as well, one can envisage a greater number of pendency as the pandemic shut down everything, including courts, allowing only the most urgent and important matters to be heard, effectively further dampening the already poor disposal rate.

However, Nimisha Srivastava, Programme Director of Counsel to Secure Justice — a non-profit organisation which began its operations in Delhi, in 2012, “in response to high levels of child sexual abuse” — says that the high number of cases of POCSO in Delhi can also be down to the fact that the age of consent is still 18 years. “The change in the law is something that child rights organisations and women rights organisations have wanted,” she says many cases are those which have taken place between two consenting minors, who are then thrown into the justice system. Adding that a lot of these are young girls running away from domestic violence or from planned marriages, according to their families’ whims.

 Abuser at home

But predators lurk all around, many at home. In fact just as in the case of adults, offenders with relation to child victims is a repeatedly seen offence. In Delhi, in 2019, the total cases where offenders were known to victims were 933. Out of this 99 were family members whereas 472 were either family friends, neighbours, or other known persons.

Cases of child rape under section 4 & 6 of POCSO Act, and Section 376 of the IPC saw 957 victims in 2019 in Delhi alone, with sexual assault of children which comes under section 8 & 10 of POCSO Act and section 354 of the IPC had 604 victims.

In the case of the 6-year-old, the mother approached the police station to file a report, she was later forced to withdraw. According to her lawyer Advocate Greeshma Jose, the mother was brutally thrashed by her accused husband, then taken to the Sarita Vihar police station along with his lawyer to withdraw her case.

But two days later when the child came and complained to her again about feeling unwell she went back to the police. This time the cops refused to lodge a case, “The mother approached DCW (Delhi Commission for Women) who then directed her to the Saket Court who ensured the lodging of an FIR. The child was taken to AIIMS to file an MLC (Medico Legal Case) where she was admitted for five days”, says Jose.

“The husband told the police that it was a case of marital dispute and nothing more”. This excuse has been maintained by the accused ever since. The husband’s anticipatory bail rejected by the sessions court, has now reached its fourth hearing scheduled for October 9th in the Delhi High Court.

He has been charged under the sections of the IPC 354,376 and 506 and sections 6 and 8 of the POCSO Act. While they don’t quite know when the abuse started, as the child is too young to pinpoint the time frame, it had been taking place for some time. They also fear that the younger daughter may have also been subjected to rape and or assault.

“The child was completely neglected by the police and now we are planning on getting her admitted to AIIMS hospital under psychiatric doctor so that she can get better help as the child is showing symptoms of depression. She is unable to sleep well at night, and she is having an aversion towards men.”

Srivastava says her team had been looking into the case till a week ago, and also got the court to take strict action against the police.

Jose says that she has been working for child rape victims since 2015 in Delhi and has never met with such “unbothered” police personnel before this. One other case she points to where the judiciary has allowed an accused to receive bail is another where the accused is the father.

The victim, currently a class 11 student was being raped repeatedly for three years before the matter came to light. The child told her school counsellor and by that time she was depressed and is now suicidal, according to Jose.

An FIR was filed against the accused father in New Ashok Nagar East Mayur Vihar Police station in 2018 under the sections 376(2) and 506 IPC and 6 POCSO Act. While he had been in judicial custody on February 23, 2018, the case dragged on even though the POCSO Act says the trial must end within a year. Now Jose says, because of the Covid-19 lockdown, and the courts not functioning as regular, the trial of the case “shall take substantial time”.

Even so, before Covid-19 while there were a total number of 21 prosecution witnesses, only four witnesses have been examined till date. The accused has now been released on bail with conditions by the High Court on June 4 of this year.

Srivastava says reality on the ground is very different to what the POCSO Act guarantees, in terms of ending the trial within a year. She does say that despite the high number of pending cases shown in the NCRB report, cases are now moving much faster.

But, she says the irony is that conviction rates are low, pointing to police’s lack of investigation skills, their lack of training and bad handling of collection of evidence, particularly witnesses turning hostile.

The matter of bail of the accused is a right given under the law, Srivastava points out. “We did have many cases during the lockdown where only bail matters were being looked as being important cases.” In cases of incest, Srivastava says, the Court would rather have the child state their view on bail, adding that this even led to one where the daughter allowed it.

But this could also mean, the child is pressured to withdraw their testimony against the accused father as he is the sole breadwinner. It thus lays on the Court, she says to determine the factors surrounding the case and if bail is a plausible choice.

Delhi High Court issued a series of directions on June 5 to ensure that the Sessions Court comply with the court’s orders from May 13 in the matter of bail of under trial prisoners who are facing trial under Section 4 & 6 of POCSO Act; under Section 376, 376A, 376B, 376C, 376D and 376E and Acid Attack, with notice to be issued to the complainant, with the “obligation” having no “exception”.

The single Bench of Justice Prathiba M Singh heard the matter with Advocate Tara Narula appearing for the Petitioner, saying that despite the early order, the directions were not being followed.

Narula showed orders of 122 cases where none included a record of the presence of the complainant or indicate whether notice of the bail application was issued to the complainant at any stage, in any manner.

Jose says in their case, since the accused was released on bail, his sister has dragged the advocate and the victim’s school into false narratives of forced conversion, with posts on social media. The advocate also happens to be a Christian nun, and the (Christian) school of the victim is where she opened up about the abuse to a counsellor.

For now, she continues the fight for justice, telling us they “will fight till the end”.

 

(Cover:  From the total case under POCSO Act in Delhi, in 2019, there were 933 victims who knew their attackers. Out of this 99 were family members whereas 472 were either family friends, neighbours, or other known persons    // ILLUSTRATION: GETTY)

 

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