Why convicting customers is key to reducing commercial sexual exploitation of children

Often, customers who exploit minors for sex are not seen as the child rapists that they are. They are not even booked under the POCSO Act, say activists.
Why convicting customers is key to reducing commercial sexual exploitation of children
Why convicting customers is key to reducing commercial sexual exploitation of children
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This article is a part of Meri Suno, a campaign to give voice to survivors of trafficking. The campaign is led by members of the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking, a survivor-led organisation formed to combat trafficking. Visit ILFAT.org to know more. 

One hundred and nine children were sexually abused in India every day in 2018, data from National Crime Record Bureau shows. And these are only the reported cases. NCRB data states that 39,827 cases were reported in 2018 under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). This is 22% more than 2017.

While this data represents a number that could very well be far from the actual number of sexual crimes committed against children, estimating how many children were victims of commercial sexual exploitation in India is even more difficult. Despite efforts by law enforcement agencies and NGOs, the demand and supply of children for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation has only been growing in India.

Several efforts have been made in terms of raiding brothels, ‘massage parlours’, orphanage homes, among others, but there seems to be no effective change in the situation. “Children continue to be exploited sexually. It’s simply economics. As long as there is demand, there will be supply. Therefore, what could work is nipping the demand,” says Rajesh Chaturvedi, founder of an organisation called Mission Rescue Operation.

“If there is demand, if a person who is demanding for the first time is ready to pay Rs 3 to 5 lakh for a child who is not even 13, the supplier will obviously find ways to supply. First, we need to start with the demand and then simultaneously hit the supply,” adds Rajesh.

Activists rescuing children who are victims of sexual exploitation say that the first step is to recognise that those who demand sex with minors are not just ‘customers’, they are sexual offenders and therefore need to be apprehended.

Rajesh says that through his organisation, when they tried to create awareness among customers that they need to ask for the age of the person and ensure that at least no child is exploited, there was no impact. “We had tried creating awareness among customers, but I saw that very little effect was there,” he adds. Only stringent conviction of customers has proven to be most effective in reducing demand,” he says. Activist and researcher Roop Sen however cautions and adds that research has shown that prevention methods have also had a significant impact, and that focusing only on criminalisation could drive the crimes further underground and difficult to deal with.

In the town of Mangalagiri in Andhra Pradesh, several years ago, two young girls who were 15 and 16 years of age were being exploited for sex. When these girls were rescued, they revealed that they were exploited by a 55-year-old bank manager in Vijayawada, whose wife was away. This man, they alleged, kept them in his house, exploited them sexually, brought in other ‘customers’ too, and even got these girls habituated to alcohol. In return, the girls were paid a handsome sum.

Based on their statement, the bank manager, along with six others, was arrested and relevant cases were registered against them. Ramamohan, director of NGO HELP in AP, who worked on this rescue operation along with Rachakonda Police Commissioner Mahesh M Bhagwat (who was then with the CID) says that after this arrest, with the matter becoming public, the demand for children went down.

“This was even before POCSO was in place. People started getting scared of even thinking of demanding sex with minors, because they saw what happened with the bank manager. If we are successfully able to convict customers, demand will automatically take a hit,” Ramamohan says.

Rajesh, too, says that conviction of customers is the biggest deterrent. “Conviction is the biggest thing that can be used to choke the demand. Even if 10% of the customers are convicted, demand will go down drastically,” he adds.

There are now stringent laws in place that punish anyone who has sex with a minor. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 indicts anyone who has sex with a child below 16 years of age.

“Whoever commits penetrative sexual assault on a child below 16 years of age shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than twenty years, but which may extend to imprisonment for life, which shall mean imprisonment for the remainder of natural life of that person, and shall also be liable to fine,” the Act states.

However, despite the law clearly stating the punishment for sex with minors, conviction of customers continues to be a rare occurrence.

Pompi Banerjee, a psychologist with Kolkata-based organisation Sanjog, who has vast experience in working with victims of CSEC, says that there is a perception that POCSO is only applicable in cases that are not CSEC. “The moment it is commercial sexual exploitation of children, somehow the law enforcement agencies as well as NGOs and social development sector people put the case in the bracket of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA). Application of POCSO in these cases is something that we see very less of.”

Many lawyers and social activists argue that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, unlike POCSO, is not clear about penalising customers. According to Pompi, one of the biggest problems is the attitude among law enforcement agencies of not wanting to apprehend customers.

“When the police or an NGO goes to a place commercial sexual exploitation and rescues children, they usually arrest the property managers, but don’t arrest or apprehend the customers who are found there with children. One may argue that it’s difficult to identify customers who want to sexually exploit children – however, there are various methods of investigation and collecting evidence. Then there is also an argument that if someone is a customer, then paying for sex is a way of obtaining ‘consent’. But they are just washing their hands off of any responsibility of ascertaining the age of the person they are engaging with,” Pompi adds.

If this needs to change, Pompi says the most important thing is that leadership in law enforcement needs to take conviction of customers as an issue of priority.

“There is a palpable perception that sexual abuse and exploitation of children, which is addressed under POCSO, is very different from commercial sexual exploitation. I think this binary thinking needs to be broken. If you look at commercial sexual exploitation of children, as much as it can be a case of child trafficking, it can also be a case of sexual abuse and exploitation of a child by multiple people, which is punishable under POCSO,” she adds.

Further, researcher and activist Roop Sen’s research found that there is ambivalence in the law enforcement to penalise customers because of its own lack of confidence about its repercussions, and how the political parties in power would support what could potentially indict people with money and power as culprits. “Another reason is the lack of resources, skills and expertise in a customer-centric investigation and prosecution -  across states. The police admitted that such investigations require expertise that has never been the focus for police in India,” Sen says.

His research also pointed out that the lack of monitoring of the POCSO and its implementation in the cases of CSEC has been ignored by MHA and home ministries in all states, as well as researchers and activists such as the Centre for Child and the Law in National Law School, which is one of the strongest advocates on POCSO implementation.

According to Rajesh, there needs to be a law that very clearly mentions a section for these types of perpetrators. He says that even while it is clearly mentioned in POCSO, investigation officers tend to find a grey area in that.

“So, it should be very clear that this section should be applied on those who are demanding sex from children,” he adds.

Agreeing with Pompi that there has to be political will and will from the law enforcement agencies, Rajesh adds that lack of awareness is another major issue that needs to be addressed, for conviction rates to improve.

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