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Thursday, January 27, 2022

POSCO cases: Victims battle abandonment, pressure to retract charges

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India 2015 report, the total reported cases across India under two sections of the POCSO Act (of penetrative sexual assault) are 8,800. Of these, 8,341 are cases where the offenders were known to the victims.

Written by Sadaf Modak | Mumbai |
July 23, 2017 3:44:01 am
posco cases, minor sexual abuse, sexual crime children act, posco act cases, molestation, minor rape, sexual assault cases, crime stats, crime against women, crime records bureau, indian express Child rights activists are unanimous that the cases are far more common than reported or perceived. (Manali Ghosh)

ALONGSIDE the rising number of trials in which children are victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by a family member, the special Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) courts are also increasingly sites of emotional and social struggles for survivors, long after the abuse has been reported. Social workers assisting the courts, lawyers and survivors themselves agree that from protecting young victims from family pressure to retract complaints to providing rehabilitation in the eventuality of abandonment by families, several challenges have emerged.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India 2015 report, the total reported cases across India under two sections of the POCSO Act (of penetrative sexual assault) are 8,800. Of these, 8,341 are cases where the offenders were known to the victims. And 929 were immediate family members — grandfather, father, brother or close family member. In such cases, right from reporting the crime to rehabilitation during and after the trial, survivors often find the critical support from families missing.

In one case, a rape survivor who came to depose as a witness before the special court appeared uncomfortable. Sensing her unease, the judge directed support persons to speak to her. The support persons, appointed under the Act, spoke to the girl separately and found she was under pressure to retract her statement against the accused, her father. “We spoke to her and gave her the courage to speak out about what exactly had happened,” says Persis Sidhva, advocate with NGO Majlis Legal Centre, which has a victim support programme called Rahat working in the special POCSO courts in Mumbai.

The teenager returned to the courtroom and deposed against her father, but her ordeal had not ended. “The moment she stepped out of the courtroom, her mother told her that she could not return home,” Sidhva says. The girl, who had recently turned 18, faced abandonment. She spent that night in a temporary accommodation provided by Rahat and was eventually admitted to a hostel and enrolled in college.

Reporting the crime itself is not easy. In many cases, survivors face abuse multiple times before they are able to confide in somebody, in most cases the mother. “In a patriarchal society, it becomes difficult for the mother to speak up in favour of her child to take an anti-male stand. She faces immediate abandonment and in most cases with the lack of any other social support, she ends up keeping quiet,” says Nilima Mehta, former Mumbai district Child Welfare Committee chairperson. In many cases, a case is registered only when the girl eventually speaks to a friend or a teacher. In some cases, stakeholders say, the mother faces abuse herself and is therefore unable to report abuse faced by her daughter to the police.

Child rights activists are unanimous that the cases are far more common than reported or perceived. When Rahat analysed FIRs registered by the Mumbai police between 2008 and 2015, they found that vulnerability of young girls at the hands of older men within the family is ‘starkly visible’. While the abuse faced by women between 19-25 years by close family members was 10 cases in that period, and nine cases for women in the age group of 26-50 years, in the age group of 11-15 years, at least 44 cases had girls facing abuse by close family members.

“The sexual abuse within the family is, in fact, far more rampant than these figures reveal. In most cases, the abuse is hushed up, especially the abuse by fathers, who in most cases are also breadwinners of the family. Few cases accidentally get reported, and in these cases the victim or her mother face great stigma and are under tremendous pressure to retract. The ones who withstand this pressure and pursue the case do so at great cost to themselves, in terms of financial security and social ostracisation,” the report said.

But reporting the case is only the beginning of the struggle, with tremendous pressure on the girl to withdraw the case. After such a case comes to light, the girl is taken before the Child Welfare Committee, which speaks to the girl about the alleged incident. “Earlier, we would speak to the girl and eventually send her back to her house. We realised that in many cases the girls began to retract their statements in court eventually as there was manipulation at home. Now, in most cases, where we see that there is a chance of the girl being pressured, we seek that the girl be kept in a children’s home till her deposition has ended,” says a probation officer at one of the city’s children’s homes.

In one recent case, a girl was facing abuse by her father after her mother died. When she confided in a teacher, the incident came to light and an FIR was registered. It was revealed shortly after that the father had also abused the younger daughter. The girls were sent to the care of an uncle, the accused’s brother. The elder sibling ran away and was eventually given shelter in a state-run home while the younger girl continued to stay with her uncle. During the deposition, while the elder sister stood her ground and described the abuse, the younger sister retracted her statement.

Children’s homes with their limited facilities and low caretaker-child ratio, however, are hardly perfect solutions. In many cases, a survivor has to drop out of school entirely or suddenly get admitted in a new school that the state-run home can send her to. There have also been reports of survivors in state homes subjecting themselves to self-harm.

“The feeling is that while they did nothing wrong, they are being kept in custody. They see other girls being visited by family members, many even leaving the homes in a short span, while they continue to remain inside. In some cases, relatives who are given access to the child manipulate her by telling her that the accused is out on bail while she remains in a home,” says the probation officer. Many working with child rape survivors believe that cases where a victim is in a state home should be prioritised amid the large number of POCSO cases being tried.

Another part of the struggle is the legal journey. In a recent case, the court began perjury proceedings against a girl for retracting her statement against her father. In other instances, defence advocates charge in court that the girl was having an affair and had filed a false case against a male family member who opposed her being in a relationship.

The emotional journey is probably the most trying for survivors. In a recent case, when the girl came to court to depose, she retracted her statement and told the court candidly that she did not want her father punished. She wanted to ensure that her siblings are taken care of — they had to drop out of school after his arrest and so she wanted her father released from jail. The man was eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment based on medical evidence even though the victim retracted her statement. She now studies in a city college, and while she managed to get a scholarship, she still has no financial support to look after her younger siblings.

“These aspects usually do not fall under the legal purview. It is not about convictions or acquittals. As lawyers, it is sad when a victim goes hostile, but we need to also think of what the survivor sees as justice too but it remains a complicated issue which we have not found easy answers to,” says Sidhva.

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