On the third floor of Rohini District Court is courtroom number 307, the designated POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) court of the northwest district in the capital. Last Friday, this court was to record prosecution evidence in as many as eight cases dealing with sexual assault on child victims. When the fourth case, registered in outer Delhi district, came up for hearing, the child victim entered the courtroom with a welfare officer and counsel from the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW).
She sat quietly, on the edge of the seat. She was to record her evidence against her stepfather who is accused of sexually assaulting her. Minutes into the proceedings, she collapsed in court. A doctor was called in. The doctor told the court that she could not mentally handle the recording of evidence due to pressure.
After Friday’s incident, this court asked the Delhi government to step in and appoint 11 psychologists in all the designated POCSO courts. The court has also asked counsellors to monitor the mental health of vulnerable child witnesses.
“No mechanism has been provided in the special court in the form of accredited list of child psychologists whose services can be availed (of) by the court in assessing the mental stress level of the victim children… it is highly desirable that the service of child psychologist should be made available… Only after assessing the mental condition of the child, the court may proceed to record the evidence,” directed the court.
The child could not record evidence on Friday. This court has also seen child victims turning hostile, refusing to depose.
On November 29 last year, another minor who was allegedly sexually assaulted by her stepfather refused to record her evidence. Later, it would emerge she was facing pressure from her elder sister and mother.
In December 2014, the 14-year-old victim had mustered up the courage to lodge a complaint against her stepfather. In her complaint, she said her elder sister was also subjected to similar sexual assault. Incidentally, it was with the help of her sister that she registered a case against her stepfather. A year later, however, it was the same sister under whose pressure she refused to depose before the court.
The court counselled her and gave her more time. The next day, on November 30 last year, she broke down in court. She refused to record her evidence alleging pressure from her mother.
The court then summoned the in-charge of Rape Crisis Cell of DCW. “The victim apprehends that she no other place to go and will have to suffer the ignominy and sexual assault through her stepfather… this court has the firsthand account of noticing the demeanour and mental condition of the child victim,” the court told the DCW counsel.
After examination, the DCW told the court that she had to be immediately taken out of the atmosphere she was living in, as it was not conducive for her mental health. The girl was then sent to “Bhapno Ghar” for specialised counselling. She stayed there for more than a month. She is out the special home, but the fear of pressure from the family remains.
“Recording the statement of a child victim is a tough job. Sometimes it can take hours and the child may not utter a single word. There are days and consecutive hearings when the court cannot record any evidence as the victim is under constant fear. Toys are given to the child so that he or she can use it and point out the sexual abuse to the court. However, all these efforts go in
vain when a victim’s family pressures the child not to depose against the abuser, who could be a father, uncle or neighbour,” says a senior judicial officer who does not want to be named.
“For this, there is no structural mechanism to protect a vulnerable witness through the course of the trial. Social impact assessment was never done while setting up such courts in the backdrop of the December 16, 2012, gang rape. It was such a knee-jerk reaction. No social scenario was taken into consideration while setting up these courts,” adds the judicial officer.
The two cases reflect the grim reality of lack of protection of vulnerable witnesses such as child victims in cases of sexual assault. In the national capital, in 2015, according to official data, as many 35 accused persons facing charges of sexual assault were fathers. In at least 30 per cent of other cases, the accused were either neighbhours and acquaintances. While the capital, last year, became the first state to implement the witness protection scheme, it did not make much difference on the ground, according to insiders.
Among the steps suggested were relocating the witness, facility for in-camera proceedings and ‘live link’, in which a witness could depose without coming to court.
“There are problems with the witness protection scheme. Sometimes when we receive a request to relocate a vulnerable witness, the police and government do not have adequate infrastructure. Victims can probably stay in a dedicated complex, where there is no interface with the accused. Another problem is awareness. The prosecutors and victim’s counsel have to approach courts seeking protection. Only then can Delhi State Legal Services Authority intervene and provide protection,” said a senior official.