Thirteen months after the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, came into effect, the noble intentions and the beneficial provisions of the Act are yet to touch the lives of many affected children. Every few years a piece of progressive legislation takes shape, only to be let down by those in charge of implementation. POCSO is not just another law defining offences and prescribing punishments like the IPC. It is an enabling legislation that mandates child-friendly procedures — in reporting offences, recording victims’ statements, trial proceedings in special courts, and counselling. Unfortunately, the trauma of children seem not to move our lethargic state governments, who often require a hard dose of public protests and negative press to do the right thing. It appears that our State has lost its capacity to feel; in the daily grind of transacting government business the goal of making the world a better place to live in has been forgotten; nothing else can describe the POCSO failure.
In December, the Supreme Court took exception to the failure of many state governments to implement POCSO provisions like setting up special courts in all districts, staffing state child rights commissions to effectively monitor POCSO implementation, and framing rules to be followed by police and other stakeholders in child abuse cases. In September, the women and child development (WCD) ministry had framed model guidelines to help states implement POCSO better. An exhaustive and forward-looking document, the model guidelines will help stakeholders like police personnel, medical professionals, psychologists, counsellors, social workers, lawyers and judges in interviewing child victims. According to the WCD ministry, only Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Chandigarh have confirmed formulation of guidelines. Till date, only 18 states have set up special children’s courts.
The need for POCSO was felt after surveys showed a high number, 40 to 50 per cent of respondents, complaining of sexual abuse as children. Crimes against children rose from 26,694 in 2010 to 38,172 in 2012. Even before the Verma committee, constituted after the December 16 gang-rape, suggested changes in the definition of rape, POCSO had taken the lead. Besides being gender-neutral, the Act classified offences into penetrative sexual assault (seven years to life imprisonment), aggravated penetrative sexual assault (ten years to life), sexual assault (three to five years), aggravated sexual assault (five to seven years), and sexual harassment (three years and fine).
In the first months of POSCO, policemen, blissfully unaware of the law, continued to register offences under the IPC. While that situation has somewhat changed, confusion still persists about charging offenders under the correct sexual assault category. Today, most functionaries assume their responsibility is complete by charging the accused under POCSO. The deterrence value of POCSO does not emanate from the harshness of its punishments. The favourable environment created for children and families to report crimes and cope with the vagaries of the trial stage is the heart, soul, and muscle of the POCSO Act.