AS THE Union Cabinet approved an Ordinance to allow courts to award death penalty to those convicted of raping children up to 12 years, stakeholders said the focus should have been on strengthening the existing Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
The Act was introduced in 2012 to address sexual assault against children to ensure that provisions are made specifically to address the needs of child victims, including introduction of child-friendly courtrooms, changes in the way victims’ statements are recorded by the police, courts, as well as rehabilitation of victims. Stakeholders say many of the special provisions formulated for children remain unimplemented with the Act becoming part of the mainstream criminal justice system.
“Rights of the victims in the criminal justice system are often neglected. Even in the POCSO Act, the focus was to have child-friendly courts where child victims could come to depose but the victims continue to depose before the usual courts, part of the adult criminal justice system. While there are provisions for stringent punishment, aspects of victim rehabiliation, like compensation, psychological and other assistance to victims, is not usually provided for,” said Pravin Khandpasole, director of Disha, an organisation based in Amravati district that works on creating a legal, social and policy framework for victims.
For instance, in the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, to tackle the high percentage of pending cases, many sessions courts have been assigned with cases under the POCSO Act, which do not have a child-friendly environment. “When child victims are brought before the court for deposing, the proceedings are conducted in-camera. This is done but the arrangement to ensure privacy is only to have a curtain around the witness box. Most victims get scared due to the set-up of the courtroom,” said a support person working with victims at the Mumbai sessions court.
In a recent case, the mother of a victim did not want her child to come before the court to depose fearing that the child will undergo trauma. Recently, the Bombay High Court suggested to the state government to set up “child-friendly” courts for victims and witnesses who are children.
Another issue that many victims face is that of protection after a crime is reported. With most of the offences committed by someone known to the victim, including close family members, stakeholders feel that the current provisions are not enough for witness protection. “Many victims are forced and pressured by their family members to turn hostile before the court against a family member, despite having faced abuse. If there is such an apprehension, courts direct that the victims be sent to children’s homes. But these homes are not equipped enough to deal with the psychological issues faced by victims leading some to subject themselves to self-harm,” a prosecutor said.
Other issues include lack of proper training for stakeholders, including the police and judiciary. “While policemen, prosecutors and judges are given training about the Act, the practical challenges in the implementation of the Act are not addressed,” Khandpasole said.