Why POSCO is needed
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To deal with child sexual abuse cases, the Government has brought in a special law, namely, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. The Act has come into force with effect from 14th November 2012 along with the Rules framed thereunder.
The POCSO Act, 2012 is a comprehensive law to provide for the protection of children from the offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography while safeguarding the interests of the child at every stage of the judicial process by incorporating child-friendly mechanisms for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and speedy trial of offences through designated Special Courts.
The said Act defines a child as any person below eighteen years of age, and defines different forms of sexual abuse, including penetrative and non-penetrative assault, as well as sexual harassment and pornography, and deems a sexual assault to be “aggravated” under certain circumstances, such as when the abused child is mentally ill or when the abuse is committed by a person in a position of trust or authority vis-à-vis the child, like a family member, police officer, teacher, or doctor. People who traffick children for sexual purposes are also punishable under the provisions relating to abetment in the said Act.
The said Act prescribes stringent punishment graded as per the gravity of the offence, with a maximum term of rigorous imprisonment for life, and fine. In keeping with the best international child protection standards, the said Act also provides for mandatory reporting of sexual offences. This casts a legal duty upon a person who has knowledge that a child has been sexually abused to report the offence; if he fails to do so, he may be punished with six months‟ imprisonment and/ or a fine. The said Act also casts the police in the role of child protectors during the investigative process. Thus, the police personnel receiving a report of sexual abuse of a child are given the responsibility of making urgent arrangements for the care and protection of the child, such as obtaining emergency medical treatment for the child and placing the child in a shelter home, should the need arise. The police are also required to bring the matter to the attention of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) within 24 hours of receiving the report, so the CWC may then proceed were required to make further arrangements for the safety and security of the child.
The said Act makes provisions for the medical examination of the child in a manner designed to cause as little distress as possible. The examination is to be carried out in the presence of the parent or other people whom the child trusts, and in the case of a female child, by a female doctor.
The said Act provides for Special Courts that conduct the trial in-camera and without revealing the identity of the child, in a child-friendly manner. Hence, the child may have a parent or other trusted person present at the time of testifying and can call for assistance from an interpreter, special educator, or other professional while giving evidence; further, the child is not to be called repeatedly to testify in court and may testify through video-link rather than in a courtroom. Above all, the said Act stipulates that a case of child sexual abuse must be disposed of within one year from the date the offence is reported. It also provides for the Special Court to determine the amount of compensation to be paid to a child who has been sexually abused, so that this money can then be used for the child‟s medical treatment and rehabilitation. The said Act recognises almost every known form of sexual abuse against children as punishable offences, and makes the different agencies of the State, such as the police, judiciary and child protection machinery, collaborators in securing justice for a sexually abused child. Further, by providing for a child-friendly judicial process, the said Act encourages children who have been victims of sexual abuse to report the offence and seek redress for their suffering, as well as to obtain assistance in overcoming their trauma. In time, the said Act will provide a means not only to report and punish those who abuse and exploit the innocence of children but also prove an effective deterrent in curbing the occurrence of these offences.
The said Act is to be implemented with the active participation of the State Governments. Under Section 39 of the said Act, the State Government is required to frame guidelines for the use of persons including non-governmental organisations, professionals and experts or persons trained in and having knowledge of psychology, social work, physical health, mental health and child development to assist the child at the trial and pre-trial stage. The following guidelines are Model Guidelines formulated by the Central Government, based on which the State Governments can then frame more extensive and specific guidelines as per their specific needs.
Children who have been sexually abused are not only traumatised as a result of their experience but are also more vulnerable to further and repeated abuse and at risk of secondary 6 victimisations at the hands of the justice delivery process. A common example is the handling of cases of child victims by unspecialized police, prosecutors and judges who have not trained injustice for children, children‟s rights or how to deal and communicate with victim children and their families. The lack of clear guidelines and procedures on how to deal with child victims and their families in a child-sensitive manner during the court process affects the quality of trial and evidence and trial process; the child is subjected in such cases to repeated probing and questioning, made to relive the traumatic incident again and again, and thereby suffer in the retelling. Another instance is that of child victims not receiving proper medical support and counselling, causing physical and mental distress to the child and his/her family and hampering the healing process for the child. In addition to this, families and child victims are unable to benefit from legal aid as the appropriate agencies are not involved at the right stage in the procedure. Child victims do not receive timely advice and assistance so as to be free from a fear of family breakdowns and social isolation if the offender is a relative and/or the breadwinner of the family. There is also no system of supervision for checking the welfare and well-being of child victims during and after the court process, particularly when the abuser is the parent or guardian of the child.
There is thus a need for prompt and systematic multi-sectoral intervention that will be conducive to the justice delivery process, minimise the risks of health problems, enhance the recovery of the child and prevent further trauma. This can be achieved through action that addresses the needs of the child effectively, not only to protect him from further abuse and help him deal with his/her trauma but also to ensure that he is not re-victimised in the course of the justice delivery process. In addition to this, it also has to be ensured that the child is steered towards the path of healing, recovery and rehabilitation.
The prevention of child sexual abuse, protection of victims, justice delivery, and rehabilitation of victims are not isolated issues. The achievement of these objectives requires a co-ordinated response of all the key players, which include the police, prosecution, Courts, medical institutions, psychologists and counsellors, as well as institutions that provide social services to the children. The protection of children from violence and abuse thus requires an integrated and coordinated approach. Needless to say, the identification and understanding of the roles of each of these professionals are crucial to avoid duplication and promote effective convergence.
A multi-sectoral approach, while mindful of children‟s rights, would address the problems related to uncoordinated interagency mechanisms that child victims face in the legal 7 and social service process. It will provide a framework within which the service providers will work, and provide a mechanism for information-sharing to help the victim. The process of investigation and referral of cases will also improve. It is envisaged that such an approach will ensure support for the child and his/her family, including assistance with police and court proceedings, arrangements for emergency shelter for children, arrangements for counselling, therapy, and training courses, appropriate rehabilitative services including protective custody and foster care, if necessary; information on and access to financial assistance, where appropriate, and monitoring of family involvement.
The responsibility of supporting children who have been sexually abused should be embraced by the whole community, but it is the professionals that work in this field who play an important role in enabling the healing process. These guidelines are therefore aimed at various professionals involved in providing services to the child and other affected persons including his/her family. Their objective is to foster better response mechanisms involving coordination amongst these professionals, so as to result in the evolution of a multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary approach that will go a long way in achieving the objectives of the POCSO Act, 2012.