POCSO on the ground: a case study from Punjab

Politics of symbolism – big advertisements and pompous state functions – overshadows the severe undernourishment among children of Punjab, who are also without effective protection by laws enacted to prevent their sexual abuse, writes MOHIT SINGLA from NABHA (PATIALA).

————–

TW: This reports contains accounts of child sexual abuse and victims’ consequent mental trauma.
“I was barely 8 years old when I was trained to seal my lips”, remembered 27 year old Gudiya (imaginary name) who had a shuddering childhood at her maternal aunt’s house. Losing her father before birth, she was brought up by her aunt and her teacher husband while mother lived in a distant town to earn her livelihood. When Gudiya was studying in the 9th standard, her aunt suspected her of having an affair but she was shocked to sneak a look at Gudiya’s personal diary, which was her only vent amidst sexual abuse from her uncle, who was supposed to be a fatherly figure for her.
“A tornado struck the house that day, yet I was eyeing a silver lining of my liberation from the repeated violation of my body and soul amidst all the screaming and cross questioning”, said Gudiya. But things turned even more horrific, as her diary was burnt while her aunt chose the dignity of her home. “She narrated some story to my indebted mother and she chose oblivion”, told Gudiya.
However, the revelation on the day of diary-reading helped her break the shackles of her voice, and she started retaliating after that. She even injured him badly once by stabbing a knife into his stomach, she said while narrating the chilling episodes.
Still grappling with depression today, she told how her studies helped her to go into amnesia about her horrors at times. Although she did her masters in science from a prestigious institution in India and now works at an multinational corporatoin, she finds it hard to trust relatives. “I have no aspirations for a married life, as the woman inside me was killed before her birth”, she rued.

POCSO Act mandates reporting of child sexual abuse, but reality is different

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act mandates the immediate reporting of child sexual abuse as soon as a matter comes to someone’s knowledge, and penalizes the failure to do so. The purpose is the immediate rescue of the child and initiation of rehabilitative action to mitigate the rippling effect of such offenses, which time also fails to heal.
Also read: Disrobing POCSO Act: Satish versus State of Maharashtra
It is widely accepted that most of the cases of child abuse are not reported, probably due to the wide acceptance of the fact itself, among other reasons. Experts believe that the criminal penalty is not the only solution for compliance with the reporting mandate, especially when little is done on creating an appropriate and conducive atmosphere. The question of social dignity compels one to stay silent and erase the unwanted memory.
In another account, a victim caged her voice during her childhood out of the immense fear built by the neighbour. Still collecting her pieces at the age of 30, she revealed it for the first time to her partner, with whom she was struggling in her relationship due to her past. “I could never come to terms with my family for never understanding my unsaid words. A permanent scar is engraved on my body and mind. Although expressing it again today is like releasing a long-held breath, yet at the same time the feeling of loneliness never fades, not even in crowd”. 
Rahul Singla, founder of the NGO Bachpan which works on the issue of child abuse in the Chandigarh Tricity, said they come across a number of victims of abuse who reveal in confidentiality how they are struggling with nurturing kids and maintaining relations. “On the other side, on our instagram, there are many anonymous testimonies of abusers who also repent deeply and many of them reveal that they themselves had been victims of abuse in childhood,” he added.

Gaps in effective child protection in Punjab

As per the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 2,121 cases of crimes against children, including trafficking, kidnapping, begging, murder, sexual assault and so on were registered in Punjab last year. There was a sharp spike in the number cases in Punjab under the POCSO Act, from 389 in 2019 to 720 cases in 2020, the year of lockdown, with 549 cases being under Section 4 (penetrative sexual assault) and 6 (aggravated penetrative sexual assault) of the Act. The state has a poor conviction rate of 33.7% in POCSO cases. Over 99% of crimes occurred against the girl child. 99.6% victims were known to offenders while 10.5% of the victims were abused by a family member only.
Also read: Stringent Penalties and Capital Punishment Fail to Deter Crimes Against Women
The practice of employing no regular staff in the child protection department ails the provisions of rehabilitation in the Act. Most of the police stations in small cities or rural areas don’t have separate child welfare officers appointed at the police station as mandated by the law. Station house officers (SHO) are holding additional charges of Child Welfare Officers at most of these police stations. Many times, police have to call women cops from district police stations who are trained to deal with the victims in these cases, said an SHO at anonymity.

Victims being neglected, unaware of their rights

I interviewed five cases registered under sections 4 and 6 POCSO Act and found that counselling, interim compensations, verification of safe atmosphere and rehab facilities were completely non-existent for them.

There was a sharp spike in the number of cases in Punjab under the POCSO Act, from 389 in 2019 to 720 cases in 2020, the year of lockdown. The state has a poor conviction rate of 33.7% in POCSO cases. Over 99% of crimes occurred against the girl child. 99.6% victims were known to offenders while 10.5% of the victims were abused by a family member only.

In a case registered in June last year at Bhadson police station in Patiala district, a 13- year old lost shelter after her father was arrested under the accusations of abusing his daughter for over four years. The district child protection department had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the victim, and it was I who informed them that she is living at her mother’s maternal home along with her mother and siblings. Her mother told me that child was so scared of her father that she cringed and fainted at the sight of her father at the police station where she was called twice for recording statements, in violation of the Act which says that the victim’s statement must be recorded at their residence or a place of their choice.
Oblivious of their rights, the mother and her brothers expressed ignorance about where to knock for any help. Absolutely no one from the child protection department had visited them for counselling, any verification of the availability of a safe atmosphere for the child victim, reviewing her education or anything else.
Psychologist Bhupendra Bhardwaj, who accompanied me, suspected from the description of the mother that the alleged offender, her husband, had a neglected childhood and he was suffering from Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Most of the police stations in small cities or rural areas don’t have separate child welfare officers appointed at the police station as mandated by the law. Station house officers are holding additional charges of Child Welfare Officers at most of these police stations. Many times, police have to call women cops from district police stations who are trained to deal with the victims.

Advocate Veena Kumari, practicing at the Punjab and Haryana High Court, said that the Supreme Court mandates interim compensation to the victim till the conviction is done. It is the duty of the government to verify and ensure the safe habitat for the child, and provision of counselling sessions to the girl and the family members as well. Since they come from an economically backward family and the father in jail, the girl is entitled to Rs 2,000 per month, and there are many other reliefs which must be provided to them within a few days of reporting the case automatically without them having to apply for the same.
However, nothing of that sort happened, as per mother’s claims.
Bhadson Station house officer Sukhdev Singh said that the charge sheet has been filed in the case last year only. The SHO and investigating officer of the case both have been transferred, he said. Regarding the aforesaid violations of the law which never came to his knowledge earlier, he promised to conduct an inquiry. Patiala District Child Protection Officer Harshpreet Kaur noted down the case when questioned and assured immediate help to the victim.
In a case registered at Samana police station, a 12- year old was assaulted by her stepfather. As the victim received no help, her mother had to strike a compromise with her second husband two months later and now the victim is living with the accused, told the victim’s maternal grandmother.

Absolutely no one from the child protection department had visited the victim and her family for counselling, any verification of the availability of a safe atmosphere for the victim, reviewing her education or anything else.

In another case registered at Sadar Patiala, the victim’s father, a migrant worker, told that he had to escape his village with his family as the accused’s kin were threatening and pressuring him to reach a “compromise”. He too confirmed that no interim relief or any counselling or safety was provided to him or his daughter. Although one of the culprits was convicted three months ago and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment, two others are still to be caught by the police, he said.

Child protection staff hired on insecure contractual basis

Most of the staff in the state, employed for the important task of child protection, works on contractual basis. Even after Masters and PhD degrees in psychology, the contractual employees remain under constant insecurity of termination of contract. “Sometimes we have to take more care of dignity of influential people than the victim as it is easy to pressurize us,” said an employee under anonymity. He added that on several occasions, it becomes difficult to avail co-operation from other departments as regular employees don’t pay much heed to the directions from contractual employees.
“While the implementation of the law in its letter and spirit is highly important, it is also crucial that social change is motivated in terms of a perception shift towards the victims so that more reporting gets encouraged,” said Singla. “I have never seen any campaign from the governments to curb the taboos associated with this crime,” he added.
(Mohit Singla is an independent journalist based in Nabha, Patiala. The views expressed are personal.)