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Children: States of Vulnerability

States of Vulnerability The sentencing by a Mumbai sessions court of the accused in the Anchorage child abuse case marks a significant moment in the hitherto vexatious attempts to ensure justice to victims of child abuse. Such abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, remains the most unvoiced and unreported of crimes. Justice in this particular instance was assured by the sustained efforts of child rights activists and the testimony provided by key witnesses, some of them victims themselves. In 1995-96, the two Anchorage shelters in Mumbai and Raigad district were set up by Duncan Grant and Allan Waters to offer shelter to homeless, abandoned boys, but what emerged was a sordid tale of exploitation and abuse that came to light only via a campaign waged by child rights activists, Kalindi Mazumdar and Maharukh Adenwalla. The two main accused, of course, fled the country as soon as the case against them was filed on November 15, 2001 and it was only after an Interpol alert was issued that, first, Waters was deported in 2003 from New York and Grant later from Tanzania in 2004.

CHILDREN

States of Vulnerability

T
he sentencing by a Mumbai sessions court of the accused in the Anchorage child abuse case marks a significant moment in the hitherto vexatious attempts to ensure justice to victims of child abuse. Such abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, remains the most unvoiced and unreported of crimes. Justice in this particular instance was assured by the sustained efforts of child rights activists and the testimony provided by key witnesses, some of them victims themselves. In 1995-96, the two Anchorage shelters in Mumbai and Raigad district were set up by Duncan Grant and Allan Waters to offer shelter to homeless, abandoned boys, but what emerged was a sordid tale of exploitation and abuse that came to light only via a campaign waged by child rights activists, Kalindi Mazumdar and Maharukh Adenwalla. The two main accused, of course, fled the country as soon as the case against them was filed on November 15, 2001 and it was only after an Interpol alert was issued that, first, Waters was deported in 2003 from New York and Grant later from Tanzania in 2004.

The judgment’s intention, as made clear by the sessions court, was to issue a stern notice to human traffickers, who have increasingly sought to make India their base. As stated in a report on human trafficking published under the aegis of the National Human Rights Commission (2005), children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking; in places like Goa and Kerala where tourist interest has risen in recent times, child trafficking and abuse has shown an alarming rise. Apart from the innocuous manner in which it occurs, there is an obvious lack of awareness, adequate monitoring institutions or even empathetic police officials.

The legal system in India is particularly inadequate in that there is no separate legislation to deal with child sexual abuse; existing laws are also inadequate. Though legal provisions to deal with the use of criminal force and aggression against women and girl children exist – sections 354, 366 A, 366 B, 372, 373, 375 of the Indian Penal Code which relate to sexual abuse of girl children – the rules of evidence and the often inordinate delay seen at the prosecution stage lead to vital evidence going missing or witnesses no longer willing to testify. There are no effective laws dealing with the abuse of male children. This is usually covered under sections 372 and 373 (which relate to the buying and selling of minor children for prostitution); section 377 also may be invoked. As the latter section has no minimum punishment, offenders are usually released on bail and then become absconders; section 375 by contrast ensures a minimum punishment of seven years. Waters and Grant were sentenced under sections 372, 373, 377 of the penal code and section 23 of the Juvenile Justice Act (covering cruelty to juveniles or children). They were awarded six years of imprisonment and fined around £ 20,000 to ensure the proper rehabilitation of victims. The worry is that in the event of an appeal to a higher court, following which bail could be granted, the accused can flee the country (as has often happened in the past), thanks to the laxity of the legal system and bureaucratic delays.

The draft Offences against Children Act 2006, prepared by the women and child development ministry, seeks to define the kinds of abuse and assault children may be subject to and also proposes more stringent punishment. For instance, the maximum punishment proposed for sexual abuse is 10 years of simple imprisonment with a fine, while the minimum punishment will depend on the child’s age. Most acts will be non-bailable, the exceptions being bullying and corporal punishment. For sexual assault, the minimum punishment is 12 years of rigorous imprisonment witha fine or life imprisonment. The draft, however, makes no provision for separate children’s courts and protection or counselling centres that could offer some measure of rehabilitation. The lacunae seen in the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 still remain. The government has never been at a loss to promise new safeguards for children; however, the gap between intentions and implementation has thus far remained unbridgeable. The National Commission for Children, which India committed to setting up soon after becoming a signatory to the UN’s Convention for the Rights of Children remains still in abeyance.

A new law to protect children from abuse has long been necessary but the proposed legislation could adopt some welcome measures as seen in Goa’s Children’s Act of 2003, which, while placing a greater onus on the government, also covers a wider area relating to protection, counselling and rehabilitation of abused children. Sadly, all this will do little to curb the abuse of children within their own homes, which as several studies have indicated, is more common and remains largely unreported. Counselling centres in schools and neighbourhoods are thus a necessary investment, as is the need for awareness building from an even earlier age. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

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