Decoding the POCSO Act
“To terrify children with the image of hell- is that good for the world?” “One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” “Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.”
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, enacted in November 2012 is the first comprehensive law designed specifically to stop sexual abuse of children under the age of 18. Under the POCSO Act, any kind of sexual assault on children from aggravated penetrative sexual assault to non-penetrative sexual assault is punishable by law.
The uniqueness of the Act lies in the fact that it is gender-neutral and recognizes that boys can be victims of sexual violence as well. It involves crimes that involve touch as well as crimes such as stalking. The law also lays down the procedures for reporting sexual crimes against children. Under section 19 of the Act, it is mandatory that any observer of the incident report it immediately or they will attract punishment as defined by the court of justice.
Section 13, 14, 15, lays down harsh punishment for using children for pornography. Unlike the IPC, it considers the accused as ' guilty until proven innocent ’. The POCSO Bill awards a stringent punishment of a minimum of 20 years in jail for giving drugs to children to bring about their early sexual maturity.
According to the recent amendment made in 2019, the minimum punishment to such an offense was increased from 10 to 20 years which could be extended to life imprisonment or death as per the court’s discretion. So, why were these amendments in the act made?
This was due to an increase in the number of cases from 44.7 percent in 2013 over 2012, and 178.6 percent in 2014 as compared to 2013 as quoted by Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani. The no. of cases has not seen a decline thereafter.
Around 6,20,000 sexual offenders have been listed in the national database so far who are being tracked by investigative agencies. So, it became necessary to award a harsh punishment in such cases so that an example could be set which would deter any prospective offenders to commit such heinous crimes and ensure the safety of innocent children.
But like the two sides of every coin, this act has its share of drawbacks too. It has received criticism for awarding the death penalty to the offenders. This would discourage the child to report the crime especially in cases where the perpetrator is a family member as has been seen in 94 percent of cases. It can also endanger the life of the child in a way since the maximum punishment that a criminal can get is the death penalty and the offender will not hesitate to commit another crime. It is the certainty of punishment rather than severity that can make a major difference. Also, it has a pendency rate of 89% in the court according to the National Crime Report Bureau.
So, how can we ensure the implementation of the Act?
NGOs have a pivotal role to play in this. They not only create awareness about the rights of children but play an important role in encouraging parents to have a healthy adult-child relationship so that the child can share his trauma freely with his parents or any other near and dear one without any hesitation.
Such a person can also be present at the time of recording of the statement before the police according to section 26(1) or at the time of medical exam (section 27). Also, it has been seen in most of the cases that the child victims and even their families feel more comfortable in seeking advice from an NGO first. So, in a way, the NGO becomes the "first point of contact" for the child in case of legal advice or counseling.
We as individuals can also play a role in creating more awareness and noticing any changes that come in a child's behavior like symptoms of withdrawal or disinterest in social activities especially if the child is in our close contact and then reporting the crime as soon as possible.
Although this Act has tried to incorporate every aspect to prevent such heinous acts against a child, it is very saddening to note that the crime has not seen a significant decline in recent times. This certainly means that the criminal justice administration and the Act are in dire need of an overhaul. Being equal stakeholders it's our responsibility to take a lead and paint every childhood carefree.