Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Free Press Journal
On July 3, 2019, a video of a 19-year-old girl being gang-raped by four men in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka went viral on several WhatsApp groups. The district police responded to it immediately by constituting a team to catch hold of culprits and five have been arrested so far. According to National Crime Records Bureau data from 2016, crimes against women and children have increased in the state of Karnataka. As per a report in Prajavani, a Kannada daily, in the last five and a half months, 908 child sexual abuse cases have been registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) 2012. The Act is a comprehensive law to provide protection to children from offences like sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography, while safeguarding the interests of the child at every stage of the judicial process by incorporating child-friendly mechanisms for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and speedy trial of offences through designated Special Courts.
The report also noted that in the same time period, 238 sexual harassment cases against women were reported. As it has been observed by child rights activists and scholars, in most of the child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is a close relative and the current report also observes the same.
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The above table shows the number of cases registered under the POCSO act and under 376A of Indian Penal Code (IPC)in 2017 and 2018. Number of cases registered under POCSO is higher than the rape cases in both the years and but the conviction rates remains low. In the capital city of Bengaluru alone, 123 cases were registered under POCSO and 51 cases under 376 A. In 2019 between January and May, a total of 782 cases and 215 cases were registered under POCSO Act and 376 A of the IPC, respectively. Concerned officials speaking to The Hindu, regarding the NCRB data of 2017 had said, number of crimes against women and children have increased drastically owing to “better reporting”, expanded definition of rape, sexual harassment and assault, as well as tendency of the police to register multiple sections for one crime to ensure better conviction rate.
It is true that reporting of such crimes has made access to the due process better. For example, Tribune India reported on July 4, 2019, “Two minor girls were sexually assaulted in Kotkhai and Nerwa in Shimla district. Both accused, Daulat Ram and Prem Bahadur, have been arrested by the police. The victim narrated the incident to her parents, who then reported the matter to the police and a case was registered under Sections 341, 506 and 376 of the IPC and Section 4 of POCSO Act.” On the same day, The Hindu reported that, a 37-year-old man, Kiran, was booked on July 4 under the POCSO Act, 2012, for raping a 3-year-old in Yerranela Kottala area of the city.
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No doubt reporting and registering of cases under POCSO and 376 A of the IPC has gone up, but it is important to look at the conviction rates. As can be seen in the above table, the conviction rate in 2017 was just 3.3%, which further fell down 0.69% in 2018. A report in The Hindu in 2018 noted, in the last six years, the conviction rate in the state is just 4.5%. The reasons for this are several, says Bindu Doddahatti, an advocate based in Bengaluru. A fact finding committee of the People’s Movement Against Sexual Assult (PMASA), of which Doddahatti was part of, observed that the special courts set up under POCSO weren’t functional in many districts. They would function once in a week or so. “Except for the courts in Bengaluru, many of the courts in the other regions don’t have judges who understand the Act, while the public prosecutors, on the other hand, are inexperienced in handling sexual assault cases; and each of them handle 50-60 cases,” she explained.
She also pointed to the cases what are commonly referred to as Romeo-Juliet cases. These are the cases filed by the parents of those girls who have eloped; the boys are booked under POCSO cases and in the court, these cases are invariably are proved as false cases. Bindu notes, “This is an abuse of the Act. It has a larger caste and class angle to it, which often goes unnoticed.” Apart from the misuse of the Act, and inefficiency leading to low conviction rates, she said, “It is important to not forget that in 90% of these cases, the victims are related to the perpetrators. This leads to witnesses turning hostile during the hearing. The age of the victim is also such that they can easily be made feel guilty of hurting an uncle or brother or anyone of her/his family.”
The case is not peculiar to Karnataka. As NewsClick has reported earlier, the total conviction rates under POCSO Act is only 3%. Following severe criticisms from civil societies in the country and government and civil societies elsewhere, the Narendra Modi government hurriedly passed an ordinance providing for death penalty for child rapists. This move of the government received huge flak from women’s and children’s rights activists. As Bindu rightly pointed it out, the problem is with investigation and the prosecution itself. Condemning the immature ordinance of the government, veteran journalist Subodh Varma writes, “For the issue to be tackled in real seriousness, what is essential is a social policy combined with an efficient investigation and prosecution of those accused. The social policy includes educating people, especially men on looking at women (including children) with respect and as human equals, not as chattel or objects of sexual gratification and reproduction alone.”
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