POCSO Act: Only 13.7% TN children aware, Bihar has almost nil awareness

The findings were part of a study conducted by World Vision India with a sample size of 4,500 parents or caregivers and 4,500 children in the 12-18 age group.
Child sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse
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Children and their parents or guardians in Bihar have no idea that a law exists for the protection of children against sexual offences, according to the findings of a recent study. Even in a well-informed state like Tamil Nadu, only 13.7% children were aware of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012. This is contrary to expectations from southern states where literacy is high and awareness about laws pertaining to children is also good.

The study ‘Child Sexual Abuse in India – Awareness and Attitudes’ was conducted by World Vision India with a total sample size of 4,500 parents or caregivers and 4,500 children in the age bracket of 12-18 years. Also, 75 child protection officers were surveyed for the study, which was released on August 31, 2020. The study was carried out in the World Vision India operations area.

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a huge problem in the country. Each year the number of cases being registered under the POCSO Act has been rising steadily. In this backdrop, caregivers and children in Bihar are mostly unaware that such a law exists, followed by Gujarat, as per a study done by World Vision India in 15 states – three states each in the North, South, East, West and North-East regions of the country.

Overall, 35% children and 32.13% caregivers were aware of the POCSO Act, but in Bihar and Gujarat only 0.67% and 5.33% children respectively were aware of the law. Other states with low awareness levels were Maharashtra with 11.33% awareness among children and Chhattisgarh with 10.33% awareness among caregivers.

In Tamil Nadu, though awareness among children was less, it must be noted that 38.67% caregivers were aware of the Act. Similarly, in Maharashtra 39.67% caregivers were well-informed and in Chhattisgarh it was the children who were better informed with 47.33% awareness level of the POCSO Act. Thus one section of society countered the ignorance of another, as per the study.

In Gujarat, 5.33% children and 10% caregivers were aware of the Act, the study found. In Bihar, the numbers were 0.67% for children and 1.33% for parents and caregivers.

In the other southern states where the study was conducted, Kerala had a 36.33% awareness among children and 26% awareness among caregivers. In Andhra, 27.33% of children had awareness about the Act while the awareness was 30.33% among caregivers.

The crime records statistics recently released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that 39,827 cases were registered under POCSO in 2018, which is an increase of over 22% from 2017 when 32,608 cases were registered. In four years since 2015 when 14,913 cases were registered under POCSO, the number of cases registered has increased by 167 % or more than 2.5 times. Still this is just the tip of the iceberg so to speak, because only 3-4% of the total CSA cases are actually registered, according to several studies.

The Supreme Court and several High Courts, for example the Gujarat High Court, have repeatedly asked the union and state governments to ensure that enough awareness is created about the POCSO Act and about CSA to ensure that children do not continue to get abused by predators. Also, adolescent boys and young men have been found guilty under the Act because they have indulged in sexual activity with a minor, which they say was consensual. The youth were often found to be unaware that a minor’s consent is not legal consent.

The study found that children in West Bengal were the most aware of the POCSO Act at 78% but when it came to parents only 30% were aware of the Act. Amongst parents and caregivers, the highest awareness was in Manipur at 63.33% while children in the state had an awareness of 59.33%.

When asked why World Vision India had conducted this huge study in 15 states of India, Senior Manager, Advocacy and Programme, Shanthi Hooper said, “The study was conducted to understand the awareness levels on child sexual abuse and child protection mechanisms, as well as the willingness to report abuse. It’s essential to identify the barriers for disclosing sexual abuse and reporting it to the police. Unless these barriers and gaps are identified and addressed, laws will not serve their purpose.”

On awareness about the reporting system and feeling safe to report a case of suspected CSA, parents and caregivers had high percentages. As many as 83.29% parents knew how to report a case of CSA and said that they would report a suspected case of CSA to the police.

Almost 75% parents and caregivers were confident that effective action would be taken by child protection authorities in cases of CSA. This was in contrast to the feel-safe factor of children, where only 65% felt confident about child protection authorities. Again, Bihar was lowest in the confidence that children and parents both had in the authorities to take effective steps in cases of CSA. Only 0.33% children and 5.33% parents showed confidence in the system.

Confidence in the authorities was high in states like Manipur, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal where over 90% parents and children said they trusted the authorities to take effective action in CSA cases.

Commenting on the low level of awareness of the POCSO Act in Bihar, Social Welfare Director in Bihar Raj Kumar expressed disbelief. “This is not a reality. We’ve conducted awareness campaigns in all our schools and colleges. We’ve conducted workshops and also distributed ICT materials in schools and have also taught children about good touch, bad touch, etc. We’ll continue with our efforts to create more awareness,” Mr Kumar said.

In Gujarat also, the chairperson of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) Jagruti Pandya expressed disbelief at the ignorance of both parents and children about the POCSO Act. “This is a study conducted by an NGO and we’ll have to see how the study was done. We’re doing several awareness programmes in the state. Also, the Department of Women and Child Development and the Gujarat Police have also been conducting awareness programmes. Slowly, we’re seeing that the awareness level is going up. We’ll continue to do more such programmes in the future,” she explained.

The study was conducted in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Manipur, Assam and Mizoram. Of the 4,500 children, 57.42% were girls while 42.58% were boys.

Surprised at the low level of awareness of the POCSO Act among both parents and children, Gujarat High Court Advocate Kristy Baptist said, “The government needs to do a lot more to ensure that awareness is created in rural and remote areas. Also, the government should ask the corporate sector to allocate money from their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to create awareness about CSA and the POCSO Act.” The advocate had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on behalf of an NGO to make personal safety education compulsory in schools and to create awareness through film, theatre, television channels and radio.

A comment in the World Vision India report stated, “The confidence in the system is a key component in ensuring that cases of abuse are reported, and in combating the culture of silence around Child Sexual Abuse that has long afflicted the system. All stakeholders combating the menace of CSA agree to the fact that the silence around CSA must be broken to end this heinous crime in our society.”

Sonal Kellogg is an author and writer currently based in Ahmedabad.

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