India has a large population of children, in fact one of the largest in the world whose rights and protection are guaranteed in the Constitution and with the country being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But, facts and figures paint a worrying picture of how vulnerable they are.
Child sexual abuse is once again in focus after a 10-year-old boy succumbed to injuries from alleged sexual and physical assault in Delhi on Saturday. According to police, the accused in this case are three of the boy’s friends, one of whom is a cousin, and aged between 10 and 12.
Between 2020 and 2021, crime against children increased in the country by 16.2 per cent, as per the latest data by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Known to be highly underreported, child sexual abuse is listed as one of the major crimes in this data that also covers abduction, murder, child marriage among other crimes.
But, what needs to be highlighted in the case of the 10-year-old, is that he could have been saved had he been administered medical treatment on time. According to doctors, the boy’s injuries were so gruesome that they were reminded of the 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape case. They said the family did not bring the boy to the hospital for at least four days after the incident, following which his condition worsened. Police, too, said the boy’s parents refused to give a statement when the hospital reported the matter to Seelampur police station on September 22. On that day, the boy was only under medical observation.
Many questions need to be answered in such cases, but the most imperative one remains the role of the parent in reporting and reaching out for help in cases of child sexual abuse. Is there a system in place that helps parents seamlessly report such cases without the fear of stigma, exclusion, backlash from society or even their own trappings borne out of social conditioning?
India has laws and bodies among other institutions that guarantee child protection. Laws such as the POCSO Act exclusively deal with child sexual abuse, while the highly controversial and debated Juvenile Justice Act guarantees protection to children in conflict with the law. National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) works to regulate laws, policies and administrative mechanisms with a child rights-centric approach. Not only this, there are numerous NGOs such as Childline that have nationally recognised helplines for reporting cases related to violation of child rights including abuse.
But, for any machinery to work effectively, it is most important to go back to the basics. There is a need to understand the meaning of child sexual abuse, not only its universal but legal definition as enshrined in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and then move onto factors leading to sexual abuse of children and how they can be prevented or even reported to reach the end goal of resolution and rehabilitation.
What is child sexual abuse?
The World Health Organization defines child sexual abuse, or CSA, as the “involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society…"
According to the global health body, it includes an array of sexual activities such as “fondling, inviting a child to touch or be touched sexually, intercourse, exhibitionism, involving a child in prostitution or pornography, or online child luring by cyber-predators".
The IPC, meanwhile, defines sexual exploitation of children as “forced or unwanted sexual behaviour towards children" and the following are included such as “outraging the modesty of a child, rape, sodomy etc".
Policy think tank Economist Impact estimates that, each year, 400 million children around the world are exposed to child sexual exploitation and abuse. Sexual offences against children are rampant but only a small percentage of them are reported.
In most CSA cases, the offender is a family member, close relative or even an acquaintance. Due to the nature of the relationship of the child and offender in many such cases, the survivor is afraid of reporting abuse. In the case of the minor from Delhi, it was his own friends who allegedly sexually assaulted him and beat him up.
This creates a cycle of violence perpetuated by silence and sexual abuse of the child can become a repetitive act that can have a psychological impact for life, as well as lead to behavioural changes and stunted personality development along with other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
What are the facts and figures?
According to the Centre’s data, all forms of child abuse are extremely high among both girls and boys. Over 20 per cent boys were affected and more than 10 per cent subjected to severe forms of sexual abuse, including sexual assault, making the child fondle private parts, making the child exhibit private body parts, and being photographed in the nude.
The NCRB data also shows that on an average, crime against children increases by about 4.5 per cent every year. The report noted that the major crime heads under ‘Crime Against Children’ during 2020 were kidnapping and abduction (45%) and cases registered under the POCSO Act (38.1%), including child rape.
According to NCRB data, between 2020 and 2021, a total of 53,874 incidents were reported in the country in 2021, compared to 47,221 in 2020. In 2021, of the 33,348 incidents registered under Sections 4 and 6 (punishment for penetrative sexual assault and aggravated penetrative sexual assault), 33,036 involved girls and 312 involved boys.
A government study involving 17,220 children and adolescents estimated that the burden of CSA was extremely high – every second child was sexually abused in their lifetime – of these, 52.9 per cent were boys while 47.06 per cent were girls. The highest number of CSA cases have been reported from Assam followed by Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar.
Recently, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi said child sexual abuse and trafficking cases in India were becoming a serious worry as they were increasing at an alarming rate. Government data shows that close to 23 per cent girls in India are sexually abused or harassed before they reach the age of 18.
Satyarthi further said the situation was not different in the world as such cases had risen due to the Covid pandemic and lockdowns across the world. “We conducted a survey before the first lockdown and it was revealed that the demand for child pornographic content was almost doubled in India in the 10 days. This is one of the major hidden problems and our children are becoming a victim of it," Satyarthi is quoted as saying in a report published by Pune Mirror.
Child sexual abuse and the law in India
In a survey conducted by policy think thank Economic Impact, India ranked 15th in policies and practices against child sexual violence. In its Out of the Shadows Index, India was placed in the 15th position out of 60 countries in combating child sexual abuse. But, it was among the top five countries in terms of protective legislation.
But, until recently, CSA was not even acknowledged as a criminal offence in India. The landmark POCSO Act was only drafted and made into a law in 2012, which shows that it has only been a decade since the country has taken serious measures to prevent sexual exploitation of children.
Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012
The POCSO Act refers to a ‘child’ as any person under the age of 18. According to the Childline website, the POCSO Act, 2012, was drafted to specifically address the issue of sexual offences against children. Until this law came into existence, CSA cases were tried under laws that did not differentiate between adult and child survivors.
The law defines stringent punishment as per the gravity of the offence, which is considered “aggravated” if committed by a person in a position of authority such as a public servant or member of the security forces. It not only includes penetrative assault under the ambit of sexual abuse but also expands the definition to include visual, verbal and physical sexual abuse as well.
There are child-friendly procedures in place at different stages of the judicial process for reporting of the crime, recording of evidence, investigation and trial under the Act. The possibility of establishment of special courts has also been provided. The law even goes as far as to define media coverage of CSA cases and states that disclosing the name of the child in the media is a punishable offence, punishable by up to one year.
It also defines measures for relief and rehabilitation of the child, as soon as a complaint is lodged with the special juvenile police unit (SJPU) or local police. The Child Welfare Committee (CWC) is also required to be notified within 24 hours of recording the complaint, as stipulated by the Act.
Child-friendly procedures under the Act:
- Recording statement of the child at their residence or at place of choice
- Woman police officer not below the rank of a sub-inspector to record statement of the child
- Evidence in the case to be recorded within 30 days
- Statement of the child to be recorded as spoken by the child
- Interpreter, translator or expert should be provided as per child’s need
- Special educator should be provided in case a child is disabled
- Medical examination of the child must be conducted in the presence of a parent or a person trusted by the child
- A woman doctor must conduct medical in case of a girl child
- The burden of proof lies on the accused in any CSA case.
Punishment covered under the Act:
- Penetrative Sexual Assault (Section3)- Not less than seven years which may extend to imprisonment for life, and fine (Section 4)
- Aggravated Penetrative Sexual Assault (Section 5)- Not less than ten years which may lead to imprisonment for life, and fine (Section 6)
- Sexual Assault (Section 7)- Not less than three years which may extend to five years, and fine (Section 8)
- Aggravated Sexual Assault (Section 9)- Not less than five years which may extend to seven years, and fine (Section 10)
- Sexual Harassment of the Child (Section 11)- Three years and fine (Section 12)
- Use of Child for Pornographic Purposes (Section 13)- Five years and fine and in the event of subsequent conviction, seven years and fine (Section 14 (1) )
National Commission for Protection of Child Rights
Established in 2007 under an Act of Parliament (December 2005), the NCPCR works to ensure that laws, policies, administrative measures conform to a child-centric approach with respect to the rights in the Constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
It is a mandate of the NCPCR as well as the state commissions for the protection of child rights, or SCPCR, to monitor the implementation of the POCSO Act.
Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015
Highly controversial and a matter of debate among child rights activists, the Juvenile Justice Act came into being in 2015. It replaced the juvenile delinquency law from 2000 and has the provision of children between the age of 16 and 18 being tried as adults in cases related to heinous crimes.
Under its ambit, all matters related to children in need of care and protection, as well as children in conflict with the law are covered. It also sought to create a universal adoption law for India. The Act was further amended as the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Act, 2021, which came into force from September 1 this year.
Where to go for help, guidelines for caretakers
Satyarthi, who has previously described CSA as a “moral epidemic", said government data shows that in many cases of CSA, parents do not even complain as the abuser is known to them. He further said issues of child rights should be made a top priority and political decisions on it should be taken with urgency.
According to a study, ‘Child sexual abuse in India: A wake-up call’ archived by the National Library of Medicine-National Institutes of Health, CSA is considered a major public health concern and, as such, comes in the domain of public health policy. Many scientific journals and studies published outside of India even define CSA is a lifelong disease, which is hard to detect and treat.
It is important for healthcare professionals as well as governments to understand the need to create initiatives in the public health policy domain to prevent CSA. Hence, it can be derived that preventive factors must be population-driven and knowledge of its prevalence in society must be widely publicised through public awareness drives and health campaigns. The study states that “brochures, visual explanations, and parenting manuals must be available for support”.
The study eschews the role of the parent, guardian or caretaker as being most important in preventing sexual exploitation of children. If parents are educated and made aware of the implications of sexual abuse on children, it will automatically lead to accessing public initiatives and they will reach out for help as well as legal consultation.
Healthcare professionals, who are often the first contact for CSA survivors, need to have the expertise required for clinical evaluation and treatment. They should also be aware of the medico-legal aspect of CSA cases.
The study states that there are often “few physical signs of sexual maltreatment and less than 5% victims show physical signs of abuse”. The stigma associated with sexual abuse is a major issue faced by those in the medical, legal and law enforcing fields. Many parents do not report CSA cases due to its taboo nature. Fear of ostracisation and backlash from society are major obstacles when it comes to reporting of CSA.
“Because of the taboo nature of CSA, health professionals must acknowledge the risk factors of CSA and the value of a thorough evaluation of children for victimisation. The physical injuries include bleeding, bruises, or swelling in the genital area, bloody, torn, or stained underclothes, difficulty walking or sitting, frequent urinary infections, pain, itching, or burning in the genital area,” the study states.
In adolescents, CSA can affect mental health, lead to changes in behaviour and personality. “Common findings in adolescents tend to include behavioural signs like violation of laws and social conduct, lower academic performance and absenteeism, sexualised behavior such as prostitution, exhibition of violent behavior, increased tendency to grow up as perpetrators,” as per the study.
Guidelines on how to protect children from CSA:
- Caretakers should talk to children about their body parts. Here the caretaker can be a parent, or a guardian. They should tell children proper names of each body part so that they are able to explain with clarity in case of an inappropriate incident
- Caretakers should make a distinction between body parts that should be kept private. Tell children, without hesitation, why some parts of the body should be kept private and not for everyone else to see or have access to. It is important to explain to them different purposes where they are required to expose their body parts and situations where they are not required to do so
- The concept of “good touch versus bad touch" is the most common mechanism used by childcare professionals to teach children to figure out boundaries when they are touched by others. Children have to be told that it has to do with whether they like being touched or not, on any part of the body
- Children should be taught the value of consent early on. It is also important to teaching them to say a firm no and ask or call out for help in case they are being pressured into or being forced into an an exploitative situation that they do not like or agree with
- In the age of the internet and social media, it is always important to talk to children about the boundaries of sharing personal details and information about their lives such as photographs or even recorded videos
- The most important would be to ensure a level of trust between caretaker and child, so that the child can confide in the parent or guardian and does not hesitate in giving up secrets or potentially harmful information.
POCSO e-Box for children
The POCSO Act provides for online complaint registration called the ‘POCSO e-Box’ to report CSA. This is an initiative by the NCPCR to help children report crimes directly to the commission. It helps in easy reporting of the crime and timely action under the Act. The e-Box is simple to operate and helps maintain confidentiality.
Immediate help at hand
Here are some helplines that have been successful in reporting and tracking CSA cases. These can help a caretaker or any concerned figure to reach out for help, advise a child in need or even report a crime:
- CHILDLINE 1098 is a 24-hour a day, 365 days a year, free, emergency phone service for children in need of aid and assistance. The helpline responds to emergency needs of children and links them to short and long term services for relief and rehabilitation. The CHILDLINE India Foundation is the nodal agency of the ministry of women and child development.
- Bachpan Bachao Andolan operates a 24-hour complaints cell related to missing children, child labour, child trafficking and child abuse in any form. Its toll-free complaint cell number is 1800-102-7222.
Internet and CSA
In the age of internet and due to increased indoor time during and post pandemic, children have been found to be more vulnerable to sexual crime online. Scrutiny on social media, limited exposure to online video games, parental guidance during internet surfing among other measures are highly important.
Only recently, the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) flagged child pornographic content, including child rape, on Twitter and said the social media giant had been “casual" in removing such graphic content from its platform. The rights body also wrote to the CBI for its intervention in the matter and said it had found fresh tweets promoting child porn despite issuing a summons to Twitter India and directing it remove the content earlier last month.
The NCPCR, too, recently published draft guidelines to regulate child protection in the entertainment industry that also covers social media and OTT platforms for the very first time. There are strict penal provisions as laid out by the guidelines, including imprisonment, and they also mandate that child artistes be registered with district magistrates.
According to an article published by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), ‘A pandemic of abuse: How India is protecting its children online’, incidences of online child sexual abuse and exploitation (OCSAE) have increased since early 2020. Due to school closures and lockdowns caused by the pandemic, more and more children have spent their time on the internet that made them susceptible to harmful behaviour and content. Increased screen time, sometimes unmonitored by parents or guardians, has put their online safety at risk.
Figures stated in the article to substantiate the prevalence of online child sexual abuse show cyber crimes against children in 2020 rose by more than 400 per cent as compared to 2019, in India. Close to 90 per cent of these crimes involved the publication or transmission of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), the article states. Increased use of social media platforms, move from physical to online classes, and use of educational apps have all been found to threaten children’s online safety, as per the article.
To combat this, India has joined the Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) initiative. In this, the CBI will collaborate with other countries to detect child sex abuse online. This will also help investigators in India and other countries identify abusers, victims, and crime scenes from audio-visual clips using specialised software.
According to a report in The Indian Express, the ICSE database uses video and image comparison to analyse Child Sex Exploitation Material (CSEM) and make connections between victims, abusers and places. Over 30,000 child abuse survivors and 13,000 criminals have been identified using this database and software, as of July 2022, the report said.
India and online child sex abuse
According to Interpol data, from 2017 to 2020, India reported more than 24 lakh incidences of online child sexual abuse. In these cases, 80 per cent victims were girls below the age of 14, over 60 per cent unidentified victims were prepubescent, including infants and toddlers, and close to 65 per cent unidentified victims were girls but severe abuse images were more likely to have boys, the Interpol said on its website.
Before joining the ICSE initiative, the CBI had already set up a special unit called the ‘Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Prevention/Investigation (OCSAE)’ in 2019. This was done to track and monitoring posting, circulation and downloads of CSEM online, as per the IE report.
An early ratifier of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, India has a robust legal framework for child protection online. The POCSO Act and the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 (identifies offences to which children are most vulnerable) provided early legal mechanisms to battle online child sexual exploitation. But, the more recent Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, aims at curbing the circulation of CSAM on social media platforms.
The ORF article states that the IPC and the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act also provide for reporting OCSAE incidences, such as sale and circulation of obscene material; sexual harassment, defamation, criminal intimidation of children; and online extortion and child trafficking.
According to the 2020 Child Safety Online Index, a survey conducted in the first year of the pandemic, India was ranked ninth (‘average’) out of 30 countries for having the “best online safety for children". But, the survey ranks India second when it comes to “extent of cyber-risks" faced by children, which basically indicates that the country faces a high volume and wide range of cyber risks.