New Delhi, May 22: Parliament has passed the country’s first comprehensive law on sexual crimes against children, removing several factors that may intimidate a minor while filing complaints.
Under the new act — the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Bill — a child will no longer be treated on a par with an adult in case of sexual abuse.
It empowers a child to file a complaint from his or her own room, give the statement in front of a woman police officers at a place of the minor’s choice and demand for an interpreter in case he or she is unable to understand the language.
The burden of proof will be on the accused, not the alleged victim. In another path-breaking provision, the age of consent has been scrapped in this particular law.
This means that child traffickers’ usual excuse — the victims are almost always forced to say that the tormentors are taking them away with their consent — will no longer be accepted. As soon as it is established that a child is below 18, police can proceed against the suspects.
“Currently, in cases of rape and sexual assault, the law treats a minor under the same law as an adult. With the passage of this bill, we have made sexual assault gender-neutral and given children a protective environment under which they can not only complain about sexual abuse without any fear but they are guaranteed help within 24 hours. Under this bill, the burden of proof lies with the perpetrator and not the victim,” said Krishna Tirath, the women and child development minister.
She added: “The child need not go anywhere to file a complaint, plainclothes police officers can record the statement on video and a case can be registered.”
The bill has a provision for state governments to set up a special court to try the offences under the act. The special court should have child-friendly atmosphere and it should allow a parent to be present during the trial.
According to the bill, the court will ensure that the child is not called repeatedly to testify, the trial is conducted in camera and completed within one year of taking cognisance of the offence.
Procedures have been laid down for investigators to ensure that a child is not traumatised while taking evidence.
This is the first time that the government has recognised that child sexual abuse is so widespread that there is a need for a separate law.
The bill has deemed any sexual relations with a person aged below 18 years as rape regardless of whether it was consensual or not. At present, the age of consent is 16 years in most parts of India.
“Doing away with the age of consent had been a bone of contention. But we chose to incorporate it to benefit children who are trafficked in the country. Most of these children are so scared that under pressure, they say that they are accompanying the traffickers by consent. When this act comes into being, it will mean that the police don’t need the consent of the child to take action against the perpetrators. All they have to do is make sure that the child is below 18,” Tirath said.
However, the act has given rise to a situation where two laws take two different positions on the same offence.
The home ministry, in the proposed amendments to the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act, has sought to retain the age of consent (16) clause, provided the consent is not obtained against the person’s will through use of violence, intoxication or impersonation.
The bill makes it mandatory that no reports in any media shall disclose, without the consent of the child or his parents or guardian, the identity of a child, including name, address, photograph, family details, school, neighbourhood or any other details which may lead to disclosure of the identity of the child. A violation could mean imprisonment between a year and two years.
Tirath said provisions had been made to prevent the misuse of the child protection law.
The bill has envisioned punishment for those who abet and attempt to commit sexual offence. This means that anyone who employs, harbours, transports, kidnaps a child though deception, fraud or coercion and receives payments of benefits for sexual abuse will be punished.