By Prarthana Mitra
The maelstrom of human trafficking has brought a concomitant rise in commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in India, where Bills are passed to strengthen anti-trafficking laws but very little is done to actually implement these in the court of law.
Cases of CSEC are not only under-reported but also have an abysmally low conviction rate. A joint study commissioned by non-profit Free A Girl and executed by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai) published this appalling discovery in their report The Road to Justice, which begins with an alarming figure from 2016. According to the study, only 159 of the 10,815 arrested on charges of human trafficking were convicted that year.
It gets worse. In 2015, a total of 1658 cases of child trafficking were registered under the POCSO (Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences) Act 2012, of which 5003 were taken to trial, 384 completed trial and only 55 resulted in convictions. The conviction rate for CSEC cases in 2015 was 14.3% while that of case pendency stood at an unacceptably high 92%.
With the help of a fact-finding team—working closely with various stakeholders responsible for the delivery of justice and first-hand accounts of the survivors themselves—the report was able to identify the factors resulting in such inadequate investigation and prosecution, and ultimately in impunity. In-depth interviews with law enforcement authorities, lawyers, social workers, activists and survivors based out of Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata, shed light on the ground reality of the process—right from the first point of contact to the rescue and rehabilitation, followed by the often traumatic, taxing and delayed legal procedure.
The project aims to create “a robust, responsive and accountable institutional framework of prevention, protection and rehabilitation,’’ says Shikha Philips, Director of Free A Girl, India. The organisation has been actively involved in creating awareness and mobilizing the support of the public to fight against this crime for a sustainable change, says Philips. “This comprehensive focussed study discusses new strategies to ensure speedy and timely justice and systematically combat CSEC in India,” she announced in a press statement.
Empowered by four principal legislations (POSCO, ITPA, JJA and IPC Sec 370), perpetrators are apprehended, investigated and tried in India. But a legislation is only as good as its implementation, says Prabhat Kumar of Save The Children, adding that the real focus needs to be on coordination mechanism, resource allocation and clear division of roles and responsibilities.
Once the act of trafficking has been confirmed, perpetrators have to be booked under relevant laws followed by speedy trials leading to conviction as per the new Bill, Kumar advocated, saying, “These will act as deterrents.” “It is equally important to ensure that once a child is rescued, she is not further traumatised due to the flawed legal processes,” he said in an email correspondence with Qrius.
The team from TISS noted the gross lack of sensitisation at all stages of legal redress—first with the police who file the FIR, charge sheet and conduct interviews with the survivor, and later in the public prosecution system. The survivors’ security, dignity and access to justice suffers a blow from the moment they are integrated into the exploitative system. Brothel-keepers instil in them a fear of the police, which isn’t hard to believe after the ill-treatment they face within the ramparts of the police station or the court. Often the two are in nexus. The humiliating two-finger test prevails even today, compounded by a complete disregard for anonymity and empathy for the victim.
The sense of urgency and promptness demanded by such extenuating cases, are instead relegated to secondary importance, says Philips.
Speaking to Qrius, she recounts from experience how social workers often face non-cooperation from the police, especially while registering supplementary statements and resisting participation in a psycho-social support system. There is rampant victim blaming, judgemental treatment of the accuser, often as if she is complicit in the crime, all of which amounts to less reportage and increasing impunity.
Furthermore, the lack of infrastructure in terms of collecting and storing evidence often result in mistrials, while the trial itself is marred by intimidation of victims (the prime eyewitness) by prosecutors. The study also noted the vast degree of improvement in cases where NGOs interceded on behalf of the survivor, equipping them to deal with the system with holistic support and mediation. For speedier trials, fast-track courts have notably performed better than the public prosecution system, according to the report. This calls for immediate investment in improving the forensic, medical and legal instruments.
A long road to justice
The report dedicates a considerable portion to recommend crucial measures that can help bridge the gap, strengthen the law enforcement response and deliver swift justice to the culprits who contribute to the greatest humanitarian crisis of all time.
First, it calls for a systemic shift in the role of the survivors in the legal system by focusing on improving the quality of stakeholders.
It also mandates counselling and psycho-social support for the victims, concurrently with the legal process. Often, a multi-disciplinary approach encourages mediation between various law enforcement agencies and the survivor. In this regard, NGOs and social workers need to step up and act as facilitators of mutual respect, contextual empathy and understanding of patriarchal constructs.
In this regard, gender sensitisation programmes at all levels must be coordinated and enforced with rigour and regulations, to improve interactions between survivors and stakeholders. “Stakeholders need to understand that trafficking is not just a crime, it is a systemic demolition of a person” rooted in socio-economic issues, says the report. Philips added that the frequent transfer of officers often makes it difficult to train and assess the level of sensitisation in the police force.
She also raises an excellent point regarding the demand for children and pervasive perversion and paedophilia in society, that feed this network. To tackle commercial sexual exploitation of children, the system and existing laws need to be amended in a way that holds customers and the middle-men culpable alike. Furthermore, it is important to adopt preventive measure such as community mobilisation programmes to dissuade men from soliciting such services.
According to government reports, around 3 million women and children are trafficked in India alone, every year. Nearly 1.2 million children are missing or neck deep in the prostitution or child pornography industry.
The continued efforts of NGOs like Free a Girl and Save The Children underscore their role in the rehabilitation and prosecution—be it setting up village-level child protection committees, support groups, and community outreach programmes, or developing appropriate state action plans. From advocating capacity building for police officials and strengthening the interstate coordination mechanism for trafficked survivors, the study proposes sincere procedural recommendations to protect all our wronged girls from delayed or denied justice.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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