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40 years on, scientist returns home seeking justice, prompts relook at sex abuse laws

In March 2016, police from Victoria, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, prepared a ‘General Occurrence Report’ based on Purnima’s detailed testimony and an audio recording of a purported phone conversation between her brother and the perpetrator where the latter allegedly made a confession.

Written by Shalini Nair | New Delhi | Published: February 1, 2018 5:28 am
40 years on, scientist returns home seeking justice, prompts relook at sex abuse laws Purnima met Union Minister Maneka Gandhi (Express photo by Renuka Puri)

AN ACCOUNT of alleged abuse narrated by an Indian-origin Canadian conservation scientist to Woman and Child Development (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi on Monday has prompted an official move to plug a glaring gap in child sexual abuse laws in India.

The WCD ministry is now looking at initiating changes to the legal framework to allow adult survivors to register complaints against the perpetrators at any stage in their lives. Instructions have already been issued to examine the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Indian Evidence Act, a senior official told The Indian Express.

The ministry set the ball rolling after 53-year-old Purnima Govindarajulu met Gandhi to say that she wanted to pursue a case against her relative who sexually abused her and others as a child.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Purnima says she approached the ministry after her attempts to pursue the case with the police came to nought.

“I was six years old, growing up in Chennai, when I was first sexually abused by a cousin’s husband. My family was financially weak and my mother was very sick. They were wealthy, their daughter was only a few years younger and so I was often sent to stay at their house. It got worse when I was 10-13 years old, especially at night, when he would use his mouth or finger. I blocked out much of the details. It wasn’t until the age of 23, after I had moved to Canada in the wake of my father’s death, that I realised what happened to me was child sexual abuse,” she said.

During this visit to India, Purnima says, she had a “gut feeling” that her perpetrator continued to be a child abuser. That was when she decided to act, she says. “Once I spoke out, a younger cousin, too, spoke of being sexually abused as a child by the same person,” she said.

In March 2016, police from Victoria, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, prepared a ‘General Occurrence Report’ based on Purnima’s detailed testimony and an audio recording of a purported phone conversation between her brother and the perpetrator where the latter allegedly made a confession.

“Canadian police told me that I could use the report to pursue a police case in India since the incident happened in India. I approached Chennai police with the complaint. Though they were very helpful and took down my complaint, they were at a loss as to which laws they could apply in this case,” she said.

Purnima talks of how some of her family members don’t support her. “They see me as a troublemaker but they don’t see the crime. The criminal is just one and the survivors many, and they suffer all their lives,” said Purnima.

Sources in WCD Minister Maneka Gandhi’s office said that all over the world, there have been legal cases based on adult survivors reporting being sexually abused as children.

“The accounts given by adult survivors, of Catholic priests sexually abusing them when they were little, is a point in case. Even in Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s case, which started the MeToo movement, some of the victims got the courage to speak up only 20 years later even though they were adults at the time of the incident. Our ministry will pursue this issue seriously,” said a senior official.

According to the official, many Commonwealth countries have removed the statute of limitations in reporting childhood sexual offences — they no longer impose a maximum time limit after the crime within which legal proceedings have to be initiated. “There is no reason why India should not allow adult survivors to act against their perpetrators. In such cases, they are always repeat offenders as it is about the power they wield over their victims,” said the official.

POCSO is unclear on whether a survivor of child sexual abuse can report the crime after the age of 18 years. Moreover, POCSO cannot be applied retrospectively on cases prior to its enactment in 2012 and such cases fall under the IPC provisions. When it comes to punishment for rape (IPC 376), there is no statute of limitations.

However, it was only after the Criminal Amendment Act of 2013, that the definition of rape was expanded to include forced digital penetration and oral sex (both common in child sexual abuse). Until then, these crimes fell under molestation law (IPC 354) which has a maximum punishment of two years and therefore, unlike penile penetration, has a statute of limitations where by it has to be reported within three years of the offence being committed.

The WCD ministry has also instructed the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to look into the issue.
NCPCR chairperson Stuti Kacker, who met Purnima Tuesday, told The Indian Express that existing laws do not offer any recourse to adult survivors. “Since survivors carry the scars of child sexual abuse all through their lives, we are exploring ways of helping them. Even before this case, several people have met us in this regard including male survivors of child sexual abuse,” said Kacker.

According to legal experts, IPC section 377 (intercourse against the order of nature), which carries punishment up to life with no statute of limitations, can be technically applied in such cases. But the section, which also criminalises gay sex, has never been applied by police in cases of accounts given by adult survivors.

Senior advocate Vrinda Grover, who was part of the government panel that submitted its report in the run-up to the drafting of POCSO, says that while the issue of adult survivors reporting child abuse did cross the panel’s mind, there was no public conversation around the issue.

“The law has to make allowance for the fact that the nature of the trauma in child sexual abuse is such that people are likely to speak about it many years later. Words like stigma and shame are insufficient to explain the complex set of emotions that a child goes through when the offender is known to them. The law should also understand that it will take one person to open the door for the other skeletons to come tumbling out of the cupboard as they are always repeat offenders. Our law is, instead, suspicious of survivors who speak up much later because it always looks for evidence in the form of visible physical harm” said Grover.

This month, USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in jail for molesting over hundred underage girls since the early nineties, based on the testimonies of many of the adult survivors, including Olympic gymnasts.

In 2011, the UK saw the high-profile case of adult survivors speaking out against popular BBC broadcaster Jimmy Savile, a year after his death at the age of 85, following which investigations showed abuse spanning 50 years and involving victims as young as eight.

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  1. Kim Sharma
    Feb 1, 2018 at 9:25 am
    Bharat bastion aur mere pyare mitron, Pls add on to the list of my achievements in the last 4 years. I asked for 5 years to give you a New India and didn't I achieve more than 50 scintillating things to remember? Don't I deserve another 5 years to add on to these historic achievements! 50) Poor organization of FIFA U-19 World Cup as charged by the world body 51) No major gain for India by PM's frequent overseas tours as proven by logjam on various fronts/issues in the world arena, and 52) Goodwill of African countries lost by attacks on Africans in and around Delhi.
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    1. Kim Sharma
      Feb 1, 2018 at 9:17 am
      Friends, mitron countrymen, Now listen to my Kaam Ki Baath: 40) Major cities reel under severe pollution due to neglect of environment. (Previous environment minister was targeted by Modi for stringency while implementing environment rules) 41) Centre supports weak and ineffective Tamilnadu govt for political gains, hence admin suffers 42) Farmers under stress as no major effective measure taken to alleviate their misery protests by farmers paralyse Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. 43) PM's insurance scheme for farmers turns into a joke as farmers are handed out insurance amounts of Re 1 to Rs 10, 44) Right-wing anti-hindu terrorists are freed from jails as judges are forced to give favourable verdicts 45) Minorities feel alienated with killings and attacks on suspicion of eating or holding beef 46) Beef controversy brings disrepute to India globally 47) People in southern states feel alienated as measures to promote right-wing concepts or even strengthen BJP recoil
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      1. Kim Sharma
        Feb 1, 2018 at 8:52 am
        Pyare friends and mitron, Pls give feedback on my work: 31) Film censor board loses autonomy and the body becomes a laughing stock under a Modi fan, 32) Filmmakers hounded for not pleasing right-wing hotheads 33) Failure to uphold democratic values while trying to a) dislodge state governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand b) and installing BJP govts in Goa and Manipur 34) Marina Revolution against jallikattu ban humbles Supreme Court and central govt 35) Governance suffers as poor administrators appointed as Chief Ministers of Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand 36) Naomi Ganga project fails under an incompetent minister 37) India loses face abroad as overseas tourists are attacked in BJP-ruled states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh 38) Uttar Pradesh govt fails to secure lives of hundreds of sick children admitted to hospitals Gorakhpur tragedy shamed India globally 39) Spurt in crime and riots in Uttar Pradesh under Yogi govt
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        1. Kim Sharma
          Feb 1, 2018 at 8:28 am
          Dear mitron, How is my performance? 22) Looting, murder or assault of labourers/traders on charges of of cow smuggling in several parts of the country 23) RBI governor morphs into a puppet. One renowned governor forced to quit ahead of an ill-concieved demonetization 24) Election Commission under pressure to do the bidding of political masters 25) Unprecedented crisis in Supreme Court due to govt interference 26) Judiciary faces pressure from BJP leaders judges fear for lives 27) Diverting bank funds to business magnates while the central govt stops or reduces aid to weaker sections, 28) Corruption issues highlighted by Modi turn out to be baseless allegations as no agency can proceed against individuals linked to these in the absence of credible proof 29) 2G case turns out to be an imaginary tale spun by an RSS protege 30) Central govt loses face with adverse verdicts a) on charges of destabilizing state govts of Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand b) 2G case,
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          1. Kim Sharma
            Feb 1, 2018 at 8:26 am
            Mitron, see my report card: 15) Hitherto peaceful states like those mentioned above periodically in grip of violence 16) Mayhem in Haryana as CM Khattar becomes the synonym for poor administrative and leadership skills, 17) Increasing incidents of rape in BJP-ruled states, particularly Haryana, UP and Rajasthan. 18) Godmen who are close to Hindutva (anti-hindu) brigade abuse women as they lose fear of police and administration 18) Hindus themselves are unsafe as dalits are under siege no end to attacks on dalits, especially in BJP-ruled states 19) Education suffers as college campuses erupt in violence as anti-hindu Hindutva brigade target students for not toeing their line on multiple non-academic issues, 20) Mysterious death or disappearance of Dalit and Muslim students. Role of anti-hindu ABVP goons are suspected 21) Harassment, arrest and killing of writers, judges, intellectuals and journalists who don't favour the anti-hindu brigade or its leaders
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