The Union Cabinet, on Friday, approved amendments to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, introducing the death penalty for aggravated sexual crimes against minors.
Briefing the media after the Cabinet meeting, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government has approved the death penalty in aggravated sexual offences under the POCSO Act.
The amendments aim at introducing more stringent punishments for sexual crimes committed against children. The decision comes in the wake of the rising number of crimes against children being reported from across India.
Earlier in 2018, Women and Child Development (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi had proposed the amendments in the aftermath of the horrific gangrape and murder case in Kathua. The case sparked outrage across the country.
“Major changes are being made to POCSO Act. Punishment has been enhanced for sexual assault of children. The changes are being introduced to prevent children from becoming victims of sexual assault,” Prasad said during a press briefing on a list of Cabinet decisions, as per an Indian Express report.
What changes have been introduced?
In the POCSO Act, Sections, 4, 5, and 6 will be amended to “provide option of stringent punishment, including death penalty, for committing aggravated penetrative sexual assault crime on a child to protect the children from sexual abuse”, the Centre said in a press release.
Additionally, the amendments have proposed to protect children from assault “in times of natural calamities and disasters”.
The amendments are also proposed in Section 9 to protect children from sexual offences in times of natural calamities and disasters and in cases where children are administered, in any way, any hormone or any chemical substance, to attain early sexual maturity for the purpose of penetrative sexual assault.
Section 14 and Section 15 of the POCSO Act, 2012, were also proposed to be amended to address the menace of the child pornography. It is proposed to levy fine for not destroying, deleting, or reporting the pornographic material involving a child. The accused can be further penalised with jail term or fine or both for transmitting or propagating or administrating pornographic material in any manner except for the purpose of reporting as may be prescribed and for use as evidence in court.
Penal provisions have been made more stringent for storing or possessing any pornographic material in any form involving a child for commercial purposes.
The Centre stated that the amendments were made to strengthen the entire POCSO architecture and also enhance it to ensure that medicines or hormones are not be abused to destroy the childhood of innocents, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, as per a report in the Hindustan Times.
The POCSO Act, 2012, was enacted to protect children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pornography. It was also meant to safeguard their interests and well-being.
The Act defined a child as any person below eighteen years of age. However, certain sections of the Act were not gender-neutral and applied only to female victims. The recent amendments seek to correct that.
What have experts said?
Experts remained cautious and they feel that the death penalty might not prevent or even curb the issue. They state that the death penalty has been approved with the intention that the fear of punishment will be a deterrent, but it’s the reverse that could happen. Experts feel that in cases where the accused is close or known to the survivor, the case may not even be reported.
“To protect children, we need better implementation of existing laws, budgetary provision and strategic moves to create awareness among communities and children on the issues of child protection,” Priti Mahara, director of policy, research and advocacy at CRY (Child Rights and You), told the Hindustan Times.
Mahara said further, “We need robust victim and witness protection system, support system for victim and families during and after the trials. 94.6% of the cases of sexual offence perpetrators are known to the victims, and therefore — because of the familiarity of the child with the offender — the bigger worry is that capital punishment may serve to deter the reporting of cases. It may even lead to destruction of evidence by murdering the victim.”
Crimes against children
A PTI report in March stated that crime against children in India increased by 11 per cent between 2015 and 2016, as per data released by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). Going by absolute numbers, that’s an increase of 12,786 reported crimes against children across the country.
The total number of crimes against children reported in 2016 was 1,06,958, while 94,172 crimes were recorded in 2015. A cumulative analysis conducted by CRY showed a steady upward trend with a significant increase of more than 500 percent over a period of the past one decade. The total number of crimes against children reported in 2006 was 18,967, as opposed to the more than a lakh cases ten years later.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.