The Union Cabinet Friday approved amendments to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, to include the death penalty in all cases of aggravated penetrative sexual assault against children, both boys and girls, below the age of 18. This covers 21 categories of sexual crimes against children.
The amendments also extend the punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault from a minimum of 10 years to a minimum of 20 years, up to a maximum of life imprisonment and even the death penalty under Section 6 of POCSO Act. Its existing definition covers 20
categories of penetrative sexual crimes against children and the Cabinet also approved adding sexual assault of children who are victims of calamities or natural disasters, taking it up to 21 categories.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development, which moved the Cabinet note, said: “In the wake of gruesome and heart-wrenching incidents, there has been a growing demand from society to arrest the disturbing trend by introducing stringent punishment including the death penalty for rape cases.”
POCSO now gender neutral, convictions key
The amendments come months after the Cabinet approved the death penalty for those convicted of raping girls below the age of 12. They widen the range of cases of sexual assault against boys and girls under 18 that are now punishable by death. The government says a more stringent POCSO will act as a deterrent. But data show that less than 3% of all POCSO cases end in convictions and experts warn against the chilling effect the death penalty may have on reporting the crime. Systemic changes in law enforcement and prosecution hold the key to tackling child sexual abuse.
WCD Ministry officials said that the amendment was necessary as POCSO, unlike the Indian Penal Code (IPC), is a gender-neutral law that protects both boys and girls under the age of 18. “The earlier amendment by the Home Ministry allowed the death penalty only in cases of sexual assault of girls below 12 years. Our amendment, if approved by Parliament, will not only allow a maximum of the death penalty in case of sexual assault of boy victims under 12 years but also in all cases where a child under 18 years is sexually assaulted in an aggravated manner,” said a senior WCD official.
In its cabinet note, the ministry has cited reported rapes of young girls in the aftermath of Kedarnath floods and that children constitute 50-60% of victims of calamities to make a case for including rapes in course of natural calamities as the 21st category. Section 4 of POCSO on ‘Penetrative sexual assault’ also has been amended to extend the punishment from the existing seven years to ten years if the child is 16-17 years old and to a minimum of 20 years if the child is below the age of 16. The maximum sentence in these cases remains life imprisonment.
The definition of ‘sexual assault’ in POCSO has been amended to include administering hormones to children expedite their sexual maturity for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Moreover, punitive measures have been made more stringent in cases where children are used for pornography as well as for storing such content.
In a statement after the Cabinet decision, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad it was unfortunate that some minors are administered hormones to make them appear adult. He said, “This is a wholesome initiative whereby the entire POCSO architecture is not only strengthened but also enlarged so that artificial medicines or hormones could not be abused to kill the childliness of a child.” The 21 categories under aggravated penetrative sexual assault, in addition to the death penalty for sexually assaulting children below the age of 12, cover child victims under the age of 18 years, who have been subject to penetrative sexual assault by a police officer or a member of the armed forces or security forces, by a public servant, a relative, the staff of a jail or remand home or protection home, staff of a hospital, educational institution, or religious institution among others.
It also includes the gangrape of a child or use of deadly weapons during penetrative sexual assault, a sexual assault that incapacitates the child physically or mentally, makes a girl child pregnant, inflicts the child with HIV or any life-threatening disease. The maximum punishment of death will also be applicable when sexual assault victims are children with mental or physical disabilities, in cases of repeat offenders, rape and attempt to murder, and rape during communal violence.