Moving to deal with rising cases of child abuse, the Union Cabinet Wednesday approved amendments to the gender-neutral Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, allowing death penalty for all cases of aggravated penetrative sexual assault against children.
The amendments cover 21 kinds of sexual crimes that come under the definition of aggravated penetrative sexual assault against children. By approving an amendment to Section 6 of the POCSO Act, the Cabinet has enhanced the minimum punishment in such cases from the existing 10 years to 20 years and the maximum punishment to life imprisonment or death penalty.
In a statement, the government said, “The amendment is expected to discourage the trend of child sexual abuse by acting as a deterrent due to strong penal provisions incorporated in the Act. It intends to protect the interest of vulnerable children in times of distress and ensures their safety and dignity.”
The POCSO (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was earlier introduced in the 16th Lok Sabha but lapsed after its term got over.
Aggravated penetrative sexual assault includes certain cases of child rape by police, armed forces, relatives, public servants or management of remand/protection homes, by those on the management or staff of healthcare, educational or religious institutions within their premises. It includes continued rape or gang rape of a child or sexual assault using weapons.
It is also applicable in cases of rape where the child is harmed either physically, or in his/her sexual organs, impregnated or has to live with life-threatening infection as a result of the sexual assault, rape of children with mental or physical disabilities, and rape and attempt to murder. Penetrative sexual assault on children in times of communal violence now also attracts the maximum penalty of death.
Wednesday’s amendment has also added an additional category of sexual assault of children who are victims of calamities or natural disasters which now is liable for maximum term of life sentence or death penalty. According to Woman and Child Development Ministry data, children comprise more than half the victims of disasters.
An amendment has also been approved to Section 4 of the POCSO Act so as to increase the minimum punishment to ten years, from the existing seven years, for ‘penetrative sexual assault’ of 16 to 17 year olds and if the child is below the age of 16 years, to a minimum of 20 years. The maximum term of life imprisonment in such cases has been retained. Moreover, the definition of ‘sexual assault’ has now been expanded to include administration of hormones to children to make them appear more sexually mature for the sake of commercial sexual exploitation.
The POCSO amendments also include stringent punitive measures in cases of child pornography including in cases where it results in aggravated sexual assault. It also increases the penalty for storage of pornographic material for commercial purposes to an imprisonment between three to five years, or a fine, or both. Failing to report or destroy such material or propagating it further will now be considered an offence.
The government called the move a “historic decision to protect children from sexual offences”. As per the last available data, from the National Crime Records Bureau 2016, less than three per cent of child rape cases that came up before the courts under the POCSO Act read with Indian Penal Code Section 376 ended in convictions, pointing to the need for better access to justice for all, and not just more stringent conviction in a small percentage of cases.