The horrific murder of a two-year-old girl in Aligarh is animating conversations on social media, drawing rooms and streets for all the wrong reasons. Even though crimes against children have increased by nearly 500% over the past decade, the prevailing public discourse, instead of focusing on how to prevent the abuse of children, is on the identity of the accused and the victim.
The reality is that this is not an isolated incident. Since it was reported, at least seven more incidents have been reported from towns across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The issue of violence against children is widespread, but public outrage is sporadic.
A large number of children suffer violence and neglect, yet only a handful of cases are reported under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. Statistics show that every 15 minutes, a child is sexually abused in India. A recent study found that the national conviction rate for child rape is 28.2% and pendency in these cases is at 89.6%. Data show that conviction rates remain as low as 10.2% and 6% in states like Jammu and Kashmir and Odisha respectively. Though the accused in the Kathua case have been convicted, it remains an exception to the despairing rate of conviction.
According to media reports, in the Aligarh case as well, one of the accused is out on bail after having been charged for the rape of his own daughter. If he had been prosecuted efficiently, at least one child rapist would have been behind bars.
The use of death penalty
In the last year, the Centre as some state governments have passed ordinances or enacted laws allowing capital punishment for rapists of girls below the age of 12 years. In the absence of data, it is hard to say if capital punishment is a good deterrent to prevent abuse of children. In general, it is widely accepted that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent. In fact, Section 6 of POCSO does have stringent punishment for rape of children, i.e. life imprisonment, but this provision is seldom used.
To address the issue of violence and sexual abuse of children, it is important to look at the nature of sexual offences against children and examine the root causes. Underlying India’s rampant sexual violence is entrenched patriarchy that discriminates against girls and women and often encourages a toxic masculinity rather than sensitivity among boys.
In the light of this grim reality, what can be done to reduce violence against children?
A failing justice system, especially for the most vulnerable sections such as children, coupled with the absence of a functional child protection system with trained social workers worsens the situation.
Most judges also lack sensitivity, and children are often exposed to the accused or to aggressive questioning by defence lawyers. Unsurprisingly, this often leads to victims turning hostile.
Special judges, separate courts and public prosecutors to conduct trials under the POCSO Act, monetary support to child victims, and a witness protection system are required to improve the conviction rates in cases of crimes against children. The best deterrent against crime is implementation of laws and certainty of punishment.
Child protection system
While strengthening the judicial system for speedy delivery of justice will create deterrence, it is equally important to have a functioning child protection system that will help prevent violence against children. The virtually non-functional Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), must urgently be vitalised and invested in. Under this scheme, state, district and community-level child protection committees must be constituted with trained staff at the community level. Children can visit them if they feel unsafe, and the staff can ensure that action is taken to prevent and address incidences of violence.
Parents, children, and the community at large also need to be made aware of violence against children. It is important to integrate curriculum on personal safety education starting from Class I, or even anganwadis, in an age-appropriate manner. Discussions need to be held within resident associations and panchayats, and simple steps can help safeguard children.
Children constitute 40% of our population, yet only 4.52% percent of the total Union budget is allocated for them. Child protection is by far the lowest, at around 0.05% of the total Union Budget over the last four years. In 2017-18, the total allocation for the ICPS, which includes provisions under the POCSO Act, such as special courts as well homes for children, was Rs 725 crore for the entire country. This is woefully inadequate, given the sheer number of children who are in need of care and protection.
Violence against children is widespread, but our outrage is sporadic and catatonic. If we really are serious about protecting our children, something substantive that goes to the root causes needs to be done. As a society, we need to be vigilant about the safety of our children. The government must invest significantly more to ensure effective implementation of the POCSO Act, as well as ensure the strengthening of ICPS to include a trained cadre of professional staff for child protection as a vital step towards making India a safer place for all children.
Shireen Vakil heads policy and advocacy at Tata Trusts. She has been working towards protection of children’s rights for over 20 years.