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.