Ten years have passed since the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 came into effect on November 14, 2012. The aim of this special law is to address offences of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children, which were either not specifically defined or in adequately penalized. However, amidst the debate on the poor conviction rate under POCSO and a lowering of the age of consent from 18 years to 16 years (though rejected by the Central government), it is worth evaluating its impact on the ground.
Gender-neutral Nature of POCSO Act
A significant feature of the POCSO Act is its gender-neutral nature. Even though the National Crime Records Bureau has not published data on male and female victims separately, in Chhattisgarh, male child victims accounted for about eight in every 1,000 POCSO cases (0.8%).
Though the reported number is not big, it still endorses society’s apprehension that the sexual exploitation of male children is also a serious issue that has been largely unreported.
Increased Reporting and Awareness
Second, there is sufficient general awareness now to report cases of sexual exploitation of children not only by individuals but also by institutions as non-reporting has been made a specific offence under the POCSO Act.
This has made it comparatively difficult to hide offences against children. The storage of child pornography material has been made a new offence. Further, the offence of ‘sexual assault’ has been defined in explicit terms (with increased minimum punishment) unlike an abstract definition of ‘outraging modesty of a woman’ in the Indian Penal Code.
Lack of Investigation Improvements
However, a large part of the investigation of offences under the Act is still guided by the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The investigation of penetrative sexual assault cases generally involves recording the statement of the prosecutrix, a medical and forensic science laboratory (FSL) examination, and determination of the child’s age.
The POCSO Act provides for recording the statement of the affected child by a woman sub-inspector at the child’s residence or place of choice. But it is practically impossible to comply with this provision when the number of women in the police force is just 10%, and many police stations hardly have women staff.
In 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) introduced a scheme to create an Investigation Unit on Crime Against Women (IUCAW) which was to be made up of 15 police officers (with at least one-third comprising women officers and headed by an additional superintendent of police) in each district.
Its aim was to ensure quality investigation of crimes against women on a 50:50 expenditure sharing basis; the response by States to the scheme has been half-hearted. Similarly, despite funds being provided by the Centre to strengthen mahila desks, many police stations still do not have even a single woman staff.
Similarly, though there is a provision to record statements using audio-video means, and a Supreme Court judgment, Shafhi Mohammad vs The State of Himachal Pradesh (2018), on capturing and preserving the scene of crime of heinous offences using audio-video means (followed by standardization of technical specifications by the Bureau of Police Research and Development for uniformity), the pilot project has yet to be implemented across States.
In the absence of proper infrastructure to ensure the integrity of electronic evidence, the admissibility of evidence recorded using any audio-video means will always remain a challenge.
While the POCSO Act has been successful in increasing awareness and reporting of child sexual abuse, there has been little progress in improving the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. The lack of proper infrastructure, such as the low number of women in the police force, and the inadequate implementation of schemes such as the Investigation Unit on Crime Against Women, have hindered the ability to properly investigate and prosecute these crimes. Additionally, the issue of the poor conviction rate under the POCSO Act, which is often attributed to the lack of proper investigation and prosecution, highlights the need for further reform in this area.
Moreover, the fact that the POCSO Act is gender-neutral, it is showing that the sexual exploitation of male children is also a serious issue that has been largely unreported. And this is also a crucial aspect to be taken into consideration while amending the act, to make sure that all the victims are protected from the sexual offences and their rights are secured.