Child abuse is harm to, or neglect of, a child by another person, whether adult
or child. Child abuse happens in all cultural, ethnic, and income groups. Child
abuse can be physical, emotional - verbal, sexual or through neglect. Abuse may
cause serious injury to the child and may even result in death. A problem that
is only beginning to come into light in India rape, sexual abuse, and sexual
harassment are worldwide issues of gender violence.
There is very little
research done in this area in India and only a few books have been written,
keeping the subject even further from the consciousness of the country. However,
the problem persists with staggering incidence, and Indians unique profile adds
to the complexity of an already difficult subject.
Fortunately, the issue of
child sexual abuse is slowly becoming a more recognized issue, and for this
reason, this paper will focus much on sexual abuse against minor children: the
laws, victims, and perpetrators. Finally, an analysis of the aspects of Indian
culture that make this issue particularly difficult to understand and cope with
will be presented.
Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) has only recently been publicly acknowledged as a
problem in India. A welcome development has been the enactment of a special
law-Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) 2012-criminalising
a range of acts including child rape, harassment, and exploitation for
The law mandates setting up of Special Courts to facilitate speedy
trials in CSA cases. The paper highlights the intended benefits and the
unintended consequences that might arise from the application of the law in the
Indian context. Undoubtedly, the passing of POCSO has been a major step forward
in securing children's rights and furthering the cause of protecting children
against sexual abuse in conjunction with a related legislation to clamp down on
child marriages called the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006.
and spirit of the law, which defines a child as anyone under 18 years of age, is
to protect children from sexual abuse. However, criminalising all sexual
behaviour under 18 years of age can be problematic. This paper identifies three
main issues arising from POCSO: age of consent, age determination, and mandatory
reporting; issues that highlight the fact that well- meaning laws can
nevertheless have unintended negative consequences.
Historically, child sexual abuse (CSA) has been a hidden problem in India,
largely ignored in public discourse and by the criminal justice system. Until
recently, CSA was not acknowledged as a criminal offence; rape was the main, if
not the only, specific sexual offence against children recognised by law in
India. In the absence of specific legislation, a range of offensive behaviours
such as child sexual assault (not amounting to rape), harassment, and
exploitation for pornography were never legally sanctioned.
In the past few
years activists, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the central
government's Ministry of Women and Child Development have actively engaged in
helping break the conspiracy of silence
(HRW 2013) and have generated
substantial political and popular momentum to address the issue. The movement,
spearheaded by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, led to the enactment
of new legislation called the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO)
This commentary highlights the distinguishing features of POCSO and
focuses on three issues that might have consequences for how the law operates in
reality. In this reflexive piece, we begin by briefly discussing the prevalence
of CSA in India and the legal response to it. We draw upon existing literature,
legal documents, media reports, access to police sources and personal
practitioner experience to inform the paper.
Child Sexual Abuse in India
Growing concerns about female infanticide, child rapes and institutional abuse
of children led to the commissioning of the first large scale government
sponsored research study to assess the extent and nature of child abuse in India
(Kacker et al. 2007)1. The study, based on a well-designed methodology, covered
13 states (two states from each of the six geographic zones in the country)
including states with the highest through to the lowest crime ratesinci of
offences against children.
The sample was purposive and included 12,447
children, 2324 young adults and 2449 stakeholders representing five different
evidence groups: children in the family, at the workplace, in schools, on the
streets and in institutions. The study reported widespread emotional, physical,
and sexual abuse prevalent in all the states surveyed. While every second child
reported emotional abuse, 69 % (n = 12,447) reported physical abuse, and 53 % (n
= 12,447) reportedly experienced some form of sexual abuse.
Half of sexual
abuses reported were committed by "persons known to the child or in a position
of trust and responsibility" (Kacker et al. 2007: vii). Carson et al. (2013)2
survey of the current state of knowledge on CSA in India concluded that
empirical studies report a much higher incidence of CSA than
previously acknowledged by authorities or by families. The paper summarises the
findings of several studies and reports that 1820 % of CSA occurs in the family
and around 50 % in institutional settings.
Further, there is regional and
ruralurban variation in the rates and extent of CSA in the country. Girls are
more vulnerable to sexual abuse, although boys too reported a high percentage of
victimization and are subject to greater social stigma. Finally, Carson et al.
(2013) suggest that although sexual exploitation and abuse is strongly
correlated to poverty, it occurs in families across the socioeconomic and
However, factors that facilitate CSA, such as poverty,
overcrowding, extended family living arrangements, abundance of street children,
and lack of recreational facilities in families (Carson et al. 2013) are by no
means exclusive to India. Admittedly, their impact might be exaggerated or
intensified given the population density and size in India. Thus, a complex mix
of individual, ecological and situational factors that are said to facilitate
CSA (Smallbone et al. 2014)3 might account for its prevalence in the Indian
context. However, the absence of empirical research precludes definitive
Sexually abused children are severely let down by systemic failure of the
criminal justice system to redress their grievances and by social ostracism
associated with such abuse (HRW 2013)4. Only 3 % of CSA offences uncovered by
Kacker et al. (2007) study were reported to the police (HRW 2013).
unsurprising that CSA is severely underreported given the shame and associated
socio-cultural stigma, especially if the abuse is in the context of the family
(Choudhury 2006) 5. This phenomenon is not unique to India but common to
collectivist cultures in other Asian countries where an individual's experience
is ignored so as to protect the family from shame associated with sexual abuse
(Back et al. 2003; Stoltenborgh et al. 2011)6.
Legal response to India
Until 2012, the only sexual offences against children recognized by the law were
covered by three sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) not specific to
children. The only crimes registered were rape (sexual intercourse without
consent- section 376), outraging modesty of a woman (unspecified acts-section
354) and unnatural acts defined as "carnal intercourse against the order of
nature with any man, woman or animal" (anal sex, homosexuality or
Consequently, other forms of non-penetrative sexual
assaults, harassment and exploitation were not explicitly recognized as crimes
and therefore not recorded (assuming they were reported). Increased activism
around child protection issues in the media and public discourse might partly
account for the Government of India passing a special law called, 'The
Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) 2012'. This Act criminalises
sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pornography involving a child (under 18
years of age) and mandates the setting up of Special Courts to expedite trials
of these offences.
Since 2001, there has been a gradual but steady rise in recorded incidents of
sexual abuse i.e. child rape. Although there is no evidence to indicate that
globally the prevalence of CSA has been going up over the years (Barth et al.
2013)7, we might hypothesize that increased reporting in India over this period
might be the result of greater public awareness, education and a more sensitive
criminal justice response to CSA.
Following the enactment of POCSO, the number
of offences registered under rape itself went up 44 % nationally and 68 % in the
state of Maharashtra within a year, lending support to the hypothesis. Further,
detailed figures from Maharashtra provided by the second author indicate that
total registered crime under POCSO was 2540 offences in 2013 and 3858 offences
in 2014, amounting to a 51 % increase in 1 year.
Distinctive features of POCSO
POCSO 2012 does not use the term 'rape' more commonly used and also does not
confine penetrative sex to penile penetration. Instead, it broadens the offence
termed 'penetrative sexual assault' (Section 3) to include oral sex, as well as,
insertion of any object into anus, mouth or vagina, in addition to penile
penetrative sex. In State vs Pankaj Choudhary 2011
, (pre-POCSO) the
accused could only be prosecuted for outraging the modesty of a woman
penetration of the anus and vagina of a 5 year old child. The prosecution was
unsuccessful in proving rape as the High Court ruled that digital penetration
was not recognised as an offence under the India Penal Code (Delhi High Court
2011)8. The addition to the definition of penetrative assault has increased the
cover of protection for children.
POCSO also criminalises a range of behaviours as being sexual assaults, short of
penetration (Section 7). Additionally, the offences of 'aggravated' penetrative
and non-penetrative sexual assault is made more serious and attract stronger
penalties (Sections 5, 9) when committed by a specified range of perpetrators,
in a wide array of situations or conditions, and/or has a severe impact on the
This includes sexual assault committed by persons in authority or
position of power with respect to a child, committed by persons in a shared
household with the child, in conditions such as: gang rape, causing grievous
bodily harm, threatening with firearm or corrosive substances, during communal
or sectarian violence, assaulting a child under 12 years of age, or one who is
physically or mentally disabled, causing a child to become pregnant, or
knowingly assaulting a pregnant child, or infecting the child with HIV, repeated
assaults, or accompanied by public degradation. The definition is very
comprehensive and covers a range of possible scenarios.
POCSO is also forward thinking in many aspects, in that, the definition of
sexual harassment includes repeatedly or constantly following, watching or
contacting a child either directly, electronically or through other means
[section 11(iv)]-thus, covering incidents of child harassment via sexting or
sexual cyberbullying. However, the interpretation of what might constitute
'repeatedly' or 'constantly' following or contacting a child with sexual intent
(with the law specifying sexual intent being a 'question of fact') is
unspecified in POCSO 2012 and consequently is potentially contestable.
The Act is quite distinctive in that it penalises abetment of or attempt to
commit any of the offences listed in the preceding sections (Section 16).
Another 'extraordinary clause' (Section 29) in the Act is the presumption of
guilt of the accused, until proven innocent. This matter of jurisprudence lends
itself to problems in the light of some of the points raised below (Andrade and Rao 2013)9.
The provision of Special Courts (Section 35) where trial proceedings may be
conducted in a more sensitive manner with the victim's testimony given either 'in camera' (i.e. privately), via video-link, or behind curtains or screens, is
intended not only to reduce trauma but also protect the identity of the child.
The Special Court plays a pivotal role in how the law and the evidence may be
Implementation of POCSO 2012 involves various criminal justice, state and third
sector agencies and is very resource intensive. Various problems arising from
resource scarcity and lack of appropriate training which affect how
investigations, prosecution and medical examinations are conducted in cases of
CSA in have been identified by stakeholders in a state wide consultation in
Maharashtra (Maharashtra State Consultation 2014).10 Instead of revisiting those
problems which impact the implementation of the Act, this paper focuses on three
issues- namely, age of consent, obligatory reporting and age
determination-embedded in the provisions of the Act that might cause unintended
negative consequences individually and in combination.
Age of Consent
All sexual acts described under POCSO are, without exception, considered to be
criminal offences if they involve a 'victim' under the age of 18 years. This
holds true regardless of the issue of consent or the age of the 'perpetrator'.
In cases of consensual sex between two minors the concepts of victim and
perpetrator become interchangeable as the law inexorably criminalises sexual
behaviour for under- 18 year olds. The Act does not confer any sexual autonomy
to children who may then be liable for committing sexual acts under the law.
POCSO invariably criminalises a juvenile 'perpetrator' of CSA to be "dealt with
under the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children)
Act 2000" [section 34(i)].
However, in 2013 a Special Court judge rejected the notion that the human body
of a person under 18 years is the property of the State, whereby it can restrict
individual autonomy on sexual behaviour. While ruling in a case where a 15 year
old willingly eloped with and married a 22 year old man, the judge held that
criminalising such behaviour would not serve the purpose of the enactment
(TOI 2013).11 There is thus a tension between the letter of the law and its
spirit. Determining whether an allegation involving underage sex was forced or
consensual would depend greatly on individual interpretation of the
circumstances. The law allows for abuse in either direction: being too
restrictive of children's autonomy or too permissive of CSA.
Finally, lack of proper support and professional help to the victim and their
family can sometimes cause greater psychological harm and trauma (Oz
and Balshan 2007)12. Child Welfare Committees are to provide this support in
India but are not really functioning satisfactorily (Maharashtra State
Consultation 2014). It therefore creates difficulties for 'victims' as well as 'perpetrators' under 18 years, the latter are criminalised but not provided with
professional help they might need.
Mandatory reporting of CSA by any citizen, but especially those working with
children and young people in the education, social, religious and heath sectors
is enshrined in POCSO (Section 19). Failure to do so carries legal sanctions of
imprisonment up to 6 months and/or fines intended to encourage compliance with
the law. Evidence in other countries (USA, Australia) shows that mandatory
reporting of child sexual abuse has had mixed success (Kim et al. 2012)13;
The Report for the Royal Commission into
Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Mathews) reported that since the
aim of mandatory provisions is to encourage reporting not police it, failures to
report are rarely prosecuted in some jurisdictions. As a result, in New South
Wales (Australia) the law has been amended to remove sanctions for failure to
report CSA (Mathews 2014) 15.
However, mandatory reporting obligation under POCSO raises three problems specific to the Indian context:
- Criminalising sex less than 18 years virtually pushes it beyond the
purview of health professionals and school counsellors who might be reluctant to
impart safe sex advice or treat effects of unsafe or reckless sexual
practices without breaching patient confidentiality and/or getting involved
with reporting it to the authorities
- The law raises many issues for institutions, charities and organisations working with poor and backward communities and children and who
are deeply committed to building relationships based on trust with young people.
Breach of trust would seriously jeopardise their efforts to communicate with and
work with young people if they are legally bound to report any knowledge of
consensual, albeit underage sex. Lack of training for professionals (doctors,
teachers, psychologists, social workers, counsellors etc.) working with children
on how to deal with knowledge of sexual activity and to respond appropriately
can be an additional problem (Goldman 2010)16.
- Mandatory reporting raises the issue of who is or should be responsible
for enforcing this legal obligation. The police are overworked and scarcely
possess the capacity to do so. Prescribing a legal obligation with penal and
financial sanctions, without thinking through the mechanism for its
enforcement, and the resulting lack of accountability, might mean that cases
of failure to report fall through the cracks. There is a danger that the law
may be used only retrospectively to punish transgressions, rather than
ensure prospective reporting of suspected CSA by competent authorities in
A possible solution to the problem would be for a competent authority to
distinguish between acts of crime and consensual sex at an early stage. Thus,
the incident ought to be reported, but decisions regarding registering an
offence and investigating may be discretionary.
Determining the age of the victim and the perpetrator is fraught with problems.
The Special Court is authorised to determine age [section 34(2)] but there are
no clear guidelines as to how they are to do so. It is generally acknowledged
that forensic means of establishing age of a living person can be inexact and
quite complicated (Schmeling et al. 2003)17.
The Supreme Court of India ruled in
the case of Babloo Pasi vs State Of Jharkhand and Anr
that age determination is
very difficult in the absence of birth certificates or other official
documentation and while the opinion of a specially constituted Medical Board may
be useful in determining age, it cannot be the only or conclusive factor to do
so (Supreme Court of India 2008) 18.
The Supreme Court further states that a
hyper-technical approach should not be adopted and the Court should lean towards
giving the benefit of the doubt to the juvenile while ensuring that the law is
not being misused.
Under POCSO the ages of both, victim and perpetrator, are
pivotal in determining whether and how the Act would apply and influencing the
outcome at the charging and trial stages. In developing countries like India
where a large proportion of births are just not registered and therefore
substantial sections of the population do not have documents like birth
certificates or school leaving certificates to provide proof of age, this could
Interaction Between The Three Issues And Its Impact On Child Marriages:
Laws do not operate in isolation and often real life situations can confound
even the noblest of intentions enshrined in law. In this case, the legal age of
consent and mandatory reporting obligations of POCSO combined with the
difficulty in determining age could cause more problems than anticipated for the
criminal justice system. POCSO in conjunction with Prohibition of Child Marriage
Act 2006 is intended to protect girls from being forced into early marriages.
While this is a worthwhile goal to pursue, cultural and social norms supporting
early marriages in India combined with the individual's right to sexual autonomy
might present impediments to the fulfilment of that aim. A recent report on the
census data indicates that in India one in six women were married before they
were 18 years of age, of which 17.5 % (6.5 million) women had been married
within 4 years prior to when the census was conducted (Shaikh 2015)19.
there are possibly 6.5 million (and growing) potential law suits under POCSO. It
could lead to enormous waste of time and resources of the criminal justice
system in cases of consent to marriage by a girl between the ages of 1518
years. Ignoring the role of consent in underage sex combined with the inexact
science of age determination in a climate of mandatory reporting can potentially
lead to abuse of the legal system or miscarriages of justice.
solution to this problem may be the mandatory linking of UID (Unique
Identification) with victim and offender data in cases involving underage
parties at the time of reporting to help determine the age of the victim and
However, this could potentially raise a number of ethical issues and might be at
cross purposes with the original intention of the UID project in India.
Judiciary on Child Sexual Abuse
Sakshi vs Union of India (2004)
The Supreme Court developed guidelines for the
conduct of child sexual abuse trials:
In Tara Dutt vs the State (2009):
- The screen or arrangement where the victim is or is to be made witnesses
does not see the accused's body or features.
- The questions put to a cross-examination on the behalf of the accused in
so far as they are specifically relevant to the incident should be answered,
in writing, to the president of the Court, who can refer them, in plain and
not misleading language, to the victim or to witnesses.
- Ample breaks, as required, should be permitted for the victims of child
abuse or rape while giving testimony in court.
The criminal law of our country did not
recognize digital rape as a detestable offence. As a result, the petitioner has
been convicted of the fact that a woman's modesty was insulted by criminal law
in compliance with Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code.
In Vishal Jeet v/s Union of India
AIR 1990 S.C. 1412; In this case, the SC has
briefed the State Governments and Union Territories in the following directions:
Constitution of India and Protection of Children
- Statutory legislation requiring implementing authorities to take
effective and decisive action in the eradication of child trafficking under
the existing laws.
- Take action to provide appropriate and refurbishing housing.
- Create a special Advisory Committee consisting of politicians,
sociologists, criminologists, women / child welfare and voluntary social
organizations, which will be responsible for making recommendations on the
eradication of children's prostitution.
The Constitution recognizes the children as the most vulnerable human beings and
thus had made provisions correspondingly. They are the most affected than any
other age group by the actions of the state and any other individual. The
children are not seen as people who have a mind and vision of their own and are
often guided by the adults. Since they have no political and economic power,
their voices are often suppressed.
Additional efforts taken by the government
- The Constitution obliges the State to provide free and compulsory
education to all children from age of 6 to 14 years.
- The Constitution prohibits the employment of any child below the age of
14 years to work in a factory, mine or any hazardous employment.
- Right to equal opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy
manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and guaranteed protection of
childhood and youth against exploitation and against moral and material
- Apart from these rights, they also have the right to be protected from
being trafficked and forced into bonded labor, right to equality, right
against discrimination and right to personal liberty.
- The state must make special provisions for women and children, protect
the interest of minorities, promote educational interest of weaker sections
and also raise their standard of living.
- National and State Commission for Protection of Child Rights:
In addition to their counterparts in other Indian states, it plays a key
role in improving children's status in India. It could do a lot more with
more resources, more support from the central government and better trained
workers. More significant than ever is their position as independent
monitors of government action. Recently, they have taken a massive job to
track the implementation of India's landmark right to education Act, which
mandates state governments to provide all 6-14 year olds with free education
in neighborhood schools and includes crucial provisions on the safety of
- Child Protection Services Scheme:
In 2009, the Ministry of Women and
Child Development established the Integrated Child Protection Scheme in India
which was the largest ever effort to strengthen child protection initiatives.
The purpose was to promote and introduce innovative institutions and programs.
The most ambitious of these was the appointment of social workers and the
creation of committees to deal directly with children's rights in every district
of the country.
- Child welfare committees:
They are among the most significant child
welfare systems in India at the moment. They are powerful quasi-judicial bodies
of experts who coordinate the welfare authorities and the police and audit
residential child care facilities. Increased number of committees was
anticipated in the Integrated Child Protection System (ICPS). Founded in 2000
under the Juvenile Justice Act, at least one child protection committee should
be set up in each district, financed by the State Government.
- Juvenile Justice Act:
The key law overseeing child protection in India is the Juvenile
Justice Act of 2015. A series of "model laws" have been formulated up by the
central government for the application of the law, which have since been
enforced by individual states and in some cases changed. The act protects two
groups of children: those who are in conflict with the law and those who need
protection and care.
Junaid ul Islam
- Kacker, L., Mohsin, N., & Dixit, A. (2007). Study on child abuse: India
2007. New Delhi: Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India.
- Carson, D., Foster, J., & Tripathi, N. (2013). Child sexual abuse in
india: current issues and research. Psychological Studies, 58(3), 318325.
- Smallbone, S., Marshall, W., & Wortley, R. (2014). Preventing child
sexual abuse: evidence, policy and practice. London: Routledge.
- Human Rights Watch. (2013). Breaking the Silence: child sexual abuse in
India. USA: Human Rights Watch. ISBN 1-56432-980-1
- Choudhury, R. (2006). Understanding family life in India. In A.
Chowdhury, D. K. Carson, & C. K. Carson (Eds.), Family life education in India:
perspectives, challenges, and applications (pp. 3157). Jaipur: Rawat
- Stoltenborgh, M., van Ijzendoorn, M., Euser, E., &
Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. (2011). A global perspective on child sexual abuse:
meta-analysis of prevalence around the world. Child Maltreatment, 16(2),
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current prevalence of child sexual abuse worldwide: a systematic
review and meta- analysis. International Journal of Public Health, 58,
- Delhi High Court. (2011). State vs Pankaj
Choudhary, 17th August. http://indiankanoon.org/doc/613056/.
- Andrade, C., & Sathyanarayana Rao, T. S. (2013). Childhood sexual abuse
and the law: more problems than solutions? Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(3),
- Maharashtra State Consultation. (2014). Review of the Protection of
Children from Sexual Offences 2012: Consultation between stakeholders.
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Delhi court says", 26th August. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Consensual-
- Oz, S., & Balshan, D. (2007). Mandatory reporting of childhood sexual
abuse in Israel: what happens after the report? Journal of Child Sexual Abuse,
- Kim, S., Gostin, L., & Cole, T. (2012). Child abuse reporting: rethinking
child protection. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 308(1),
- Ainsworth, F. (2002). Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect:
does it really make a difference? Child and Family Social Work, 7, 5763
- Mathews, B. (2014). Mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse in
Australia: a legislative history, Report for the Royal Commission into
Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney. http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/documents/royal-
- Goldman, J. (2010). Australian undergraduate primary school
student-teachers' responses to child sexual abuse and its mandatory
reporting. Pastoral Care in Education: an International Journal of Personal,
Social and Emotional Development, 28(4), 283294.
- Schmeling, A., Olze, A., Reisinger, W., Rosing, F., & Geserick, G. (2003).
Forensic age diagnostics of living individuals in criminal proceedings. HOMO
Journal of Comparative Human Biology, 54(2), 162169.
- Supreme Court of India. (2008). Babloo Pasi vs State Of Jharkhand and
Anr., 3rd October. (http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1923647/). Accessed 16 June
- Shaikh, Z. (2015). Fact: 1 in 6 Indian women marry under 18, The Indian
Express, 5th June.
- The Constitution of India.
- The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.
- The Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.
- Integrated Child Protection Scheme, 2009.
PhD Scholar, School of Legal Studies,
Mandi Gobindgarh, Punjab, India.