A 2019 sexual assault case of a 7-year-old in Tamil Nadu has brought to light several gaps in ‘Tamil Nadu State Policy for Children 2021’ as child rights activists say children continue to suffer due to the flaws in the policy.
The girl was assaulted during the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdown in 2019 by her neighbour.
After a case was filed in 2020, the girl was medically examined in a gynaecology ward of a government/private hospital where she was referred to as a Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act case.
The charge sheet said that the accused repeatedly assaulted the child and threatened her that he would kill her mother if she complained. The assault came to light when neighbours heard the child screaming one day.
Since she belonged to an economically weaker section, she continues to live in the same building as the accused man.
These experiences have continued to further traumatise the child and the state’s new children policy doesn’t address such ground realities, according to activists.
Recently, Child Rights and You (CRY) lauded the policy, released on Children’s Day– November 20, which covers aspects of a child’s health, education, protection and participation, yet experts working for children in the state said that it has gaps such as not addressing boys as victims of sexual abuse, not including cyber crimes against children, protection from intimidation by perpetrators.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), crimes against children in Tamil Nadu increased by 4.8% in 2020 during the Covid pandemic compared to a marginal decline of 0.4% between 2018 and 2019.
The 7-year-old child’s case is in the trial stage at the Chengalpattu district court, where the case came up for hearing on December 16, but it was adjourned as a witness didn’t appear.
A person privy to the child and the case, who did not wish to be identified, said that the father left the family after this case was filed.
“The mother is a domestic worker who is now alone with the daughter fighting for justice,” he said.
Referring to the 7-year-old girl’s case, Vanessa Peter, founder of the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) said that the policy doesn’t have a victim protection programme in a situation like this. “The child need not be put in an institution when she can live with her mother,” said Peter.
“But because they are poor they don’t have the means to shift homes, so the victim and the perpetrator are in the building even though they are on different floors. This is where the state can introduce provisions for victims of violence against children, for housing, employment, other entitlements for the family members of the victims, especially from socially disadvantaged groups and economically weaker sections. Without such support, they are more likely to turn hostile as such cases take a long time.”
From December 15 onwards, various civil society organisations, including the IRCDU and the Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch and child rights activists, got together for a two-day consultation to suggest ways to strengthen the policy.
“The suggestions elaborate on how private tuition centres should be mandated to adopt a child protection policy as several children enrol there. Child Protection Policy should be mandatory not only for schools but other areas where children access education and extracurricular activities like private tuition centres, sports academies, religious places, computer centres,” said Andrew Sesuraj, convener of Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch.
They also argued for the policy to help establish a data repository on convicted sex offenders and paedophiles to ensure that organisations recruiting persons interacting with children can approach the government for background verification. This system is followed in the UK and US.
Tamil Nadu released the child protection policy at a time when the state is reeling under an exodus of complaints of sexual abuse and assault against children. Two schoolgirls have also died by suicide alleging sexual abuse by their teachers during classes online and in physical classrooms. In Chennai alone, police have booked at least half a dozen teachers and sports coaches.
In 2019, a European based study titled ‘Out of the Shadows: Shining Light on the Response to Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation’ found that India’s POCSO Act was one of the strongest legal frameworks and scored 86 out of 100 as compared to 73 for the UK.
India scored low on government commitment and capacity (48) and engagement of civil society, industry and media (50). This shows that while the provisions of the laws to punish perpetrators of sexual crimes against children is present, but its implementation has been tardy given insensitive stakeholders such as police, medical staff, such as in the 7-year-old’s case, which prevents them from seeking due process of the criminal justice system besides the delays in filing charge sheet and long trial process that is common across the country.