The Parliament last month passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, aiming to protect children from sexual abuse, an alarming social menace that has come to haunt the nation in the contemporary era. It is for the first time that the Indian government came up with a special legal provision to deal with the sensitive issue.
So far, different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) dealt with sexual offences but they did not cover sexual offences against children extensively and also did not distinguish child victims from the adult ones. In that respect, the new bill will definitely plug the holes by providing shield to all children aged below 18, irrespective of the gender.
The law clearly lays down strict punishment, which could even lead to life imprisonment, for sexually assaulting any child. Punishable offences under the Act include Penetrative Sexual Assault, Aggravated Penetrative Sexual Assault, Sexual Assault, Aggravated Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment of the Child and Use of Child for Pornographic Purpose. It also has provision for setting up special courts for related offences and speaks of child-friendly legal procedures.
The law-makers also kept in mind to ensure quick justice. The Act asks for recording evidence related to the related offence within 30 days and that the special court can take a year at the most to complete a trial.
The Act says that the child must be kept under proper care and protection soon after the complaint is made and the special juvenile police or local cops must report the case to the child welfare committee within 24 hours of filing the case. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights and State Commissions for the Protection of Child Rights are the designated authorities to monitor the Act's implementation.
The Act is indeed a welcome move to ensure protection of children, the most vulnerable section of the human society. What is particularly significant is that the administration and law-keepers have been given a crucial message to look after children's rights and not to equate them with the adult section. Children can not defend themselves and fight for their own cause and the onus lies more on the protectors to shield them against any atrocity.
In places like Delhi and Goa, centres have been opened to deal with crisis faced by girls and women and legal measures like children's rights have been put into effect, respectively, to address the problem.
A positive feature of the law is its call for speedy justice. Asking the courts to settle any case of sexual harassment of a children within a year will exempt a child victim from giving accounts of his or her ordeal repeatedly. This can prove devastating for a child's mind and soul. There have been instances where a child was made to give account of the crime even after two-three years. Drawing a limit to the time of delivering justice will surely save the children from facing more humiliation, which can hinder their growth as a normal human being.
The clause of ensuring the child victims proper rehabilitation also is a welcome move.
However, by saying that all sexual activity with those below 18 years of age is a criminal offence, consensus or no consensus notwithstanding, the law has given birth to an interesting debate. One quarter says such provision is a departure from India's ground reality. According to it, several girls in this country get married before attaining 18 years and if the law does not have any regard to the word 'consensus', then the social consequences will be disastrous. Several husbands and parents will land up in jail invariably and innumerable marriages will be ruined.
In the 'modern' India too, impacts of such law could be terrible for urban teenagers who are becoming more and more aware about exploring the once-prohibited domain of sexuality. Will the law intrude in each home and family to keep the society away from 'crime'? Recently, the Delhi High Court slammed the decision to raise the age of consent from 16 to 18 (Section 375 of the IPC says having sexual relation with a girl aged below 16 with or without consent amounts to rape). It said so while exonerating a youth after he 'kidnapped and raped' a 17-year-old girl, who was in love with him and married him and the two even had a child! The court said such law could affect and distabilise lives of several young couples.
There is, however, a differing view. It stresses that such law could prove beneficial in curbing instances of child marriage and domestic violence to a long extent, particularly in the rural and semi-urban areas. Proponents of this view believe that such law, if put into practice, will act as a deterrent for people 'burdened by daughters' and 'irresponsible' lovers from treating under-aged girls with contempt. The warning that sexually exploiting girls below 18 years, the 'consent' factor notwithstanding, can invite imprisonment upto ten years, will throw a caution in the air.
Which way the law move and leave an impact? The onus of replying this question lies on our thought and intent.