29 Jan 2023  |   05:39am IST

Has Goa failed its children by not doing enough to deter their killers and rapists?

Children are supposed to be our heritage given by God. But have we, the people of Goa and the administrative system of this State, failed in protecting this heritage from the rapists and killers of our children? The answer seems to be a big yes, considering the shocking statistics at our disposal. In last five years, 343 cases of assault and sexual harassment have been registered, which could be just the tip of the iceberg. Of these, 238 cases are against girls under the age of 18. In 23 of these cases, the accused have been acquitted due to lack of evidence. In all, 308 chargesheets have been filed. Last year, maximum number of cases (75) related to sexual harassment were filed. Three of the accused have been sentenced after trial. Four of the accused are involved in cases related to absolute minors. In fact, three of the accused are juveniles themselves, facing trial under the Juvenile Justice Act. From 2018 till date, the majority of the victims have been in the 15-18 age group. In the weekly Herald TV debate Point-Counterpoint, SUJAY GUPTA digs deep into this malice and tries to find out why we have failed in protecting our children
Has Goa failed its children by not doing enough to deter their killers and rapists?

The rising cases of sexual assault and harassment of minors in Goa is extremely alarming and the situation could turn worse if strong action is not taken against the perpetrators of the crime.

Unfortunately, the system which is supposed to act on this, has failed primarily because of the skewed data and also the fact that a large number of children are assaulted and raped, while many of the perpetrators remain out of the law’s dragnet due to the loopholes in our justice system.

Adv Caroline Colaco, Criminal and Human Rights lawyer said that the statistics of increasing violence against children is 

alarming. “Be it cases of rape, kidnapping or sexual harassment, the instances are rising alarmingly. It is very depressing for people who are in the field to reverse this trend,” Adv Colaco said.

“As a lawyer, I would say that conviction of the accused is necessary to ensure justice for the victim. Therefore one of the first things required for it is a dedicated and trained police to see that the charge sheets filed in the court are watertight,” she said.

Raising the issue of the high number of acquittals, she said that although a high number of charge sheets are being filed in the court, the acquittals are also a matter of concern.

“It is very important for the government and the Director of Prosecution to analyse the judgement to see what went wrong. If out of 100 cases, 93 are acquitted and no one is analysing what went wrong with the investigation, then there lies a much bigger problem,” she said.

She added that the Supreme Court highlighted the need for trained and dedicated police personnel only for crime investigation, but no one pays heed to it.

While investigation is a critical part of giving justice, why is there an increasing trend where the innocent children continue to be vulnerable and victims of such horrible crimes?

 Matthew Kurian, founder of El Shaddai NGO in Goa, said that prevention is better than cure.

“First of all, we need to empower and educate children and teachers by teaching them to recognise good touch and bad touch. Teachers need to be trained on how to recognise a child, who is sexually or emotionally abused. Touching that aspect is more important than anything else,” Kurain said.

He also said that an increase in the number of cases does not necessarily mean that there is a rise in crime.

“These incidents have been happening in our society for a long time. But due to an increase in awareness, parents are coming forward to register a complaint. Earlier, they used to suppress such incidents fearing shame, worrying about the marriage prospects of the girl victim. The situation has changed now. Today people are more vocal about it,” he said.

The census says that nearly half of the children are abused – sexually, emotionally or physically. But many times, they don’t talk about it because they are suppressed.

“We need to conduct more awareness campaigns not just about the physical touch, but also the child’s rights. Whenever police do a panchnama in the case of a child, they are supposed to be accompanied by a social worker. But we don’t have enough qualified social workers to go to all the police stations to make sure that the panchnama is written correctly,” Kurain said, adding, “If it is not done correctly, the accused will escape conviction.”

“So, we need more social workers. The issue has to be addressed right at the start as once the matter reaches the court, then it takes a lot of time to get justice,” he added.

Auda Viegas, Founder President of Bailancho Ekvott said that there was a time when NGOs were struggling to get justice for women as the facts were hidden.

“Earlier, the crime against women was a bigger issue as crime against the children was not as alarming as it is now. Today, it is all about children, right from the age of 13 to 18. Worst part is, they become pregnant. The number of pregnancy cases has increased.

“We are now opening a baby clothes bank because whatever we had is exhausted by supplying them to hospitals and most of them are children giving birth to babies, who are not based in Goa,” Viegas said.

She said that since there is POCSO Act (The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012) in place, no hospital will entertain a child without making it a Medical Legal Case.

“So, it has been observed that quite a few POCSO cases related victims come to Goa only for deliveries here. This issue has larger ramifications and it is not just about the police. Police don’t have adequate number of vehicles. Social workers are taking the victims to hospital and court in their vehicles,”  she said.

According to her, it is important to have at least one lady Police Sub-inspector or a Police Inspector at every police station, which is not there.

Also, the police don’t have enough vehicles, while many are deputed for bandobast duty. Those who are on bandobast duty can’t concentrate on investigation.

“Due to this, the investigation becomes haphazard and the chargesheet is not watertight. All these things have to be brought to the notice of the government by those who are responsible for the protection of children. Margao police stations has an anti-human trafficking cell, which has not had a vehicle at its disposal since long,” the Founder President of Bailancho Ekvott informed.

On the role being played by the Child Welfare Committees (CWCs) in handling cases of crime against children, Adv Chandan Shirodkar, Member, Child Welfare Committee, North Goa said the job of CWC is to take care of children who are in need of protection.

“As far as crime against children is concerned, the role of CWC comes after a case is reported to it. The cases that are being reported to the CWC involve children aged 13 to 16, who are becoming pregnant,” Adv Shirodkar said.

“We have to then find out whether that the child who has become a mother,  needs care and protection, whether the child can be institutionalised, whether she needs counselling, if the parents are not capable, then we need to identify an institution fit to take care of the victim,” he said.

There is a new trend of minor girls coming for delivery, which are linked with the POCSO cases.

“The other issue is access to the internet. During the lockdown period, most of the schools were online and all children had access to smartphones. Thanks to the internet, many children have gotten into acts that have brought them under the purview of POCSO and Juvenile Justice Act,” he said.

“There are runaway children. There are children who have physical relationships with minors or majors and get pregnant. This trend is rising alarmingly,” he said.

Speaking about the challenges, Adv Shirodkar said, “Luckily we have many institutions like the El Shaddai and several others, who cater to the children who need care and protection. We actually face problems while rescuing the children as police don't have adequate vehicles to reach the spot in time.”

Also, the victims need to be taken for medical tests, including Covid test. Only then they are admitted. These are the basic issues CWC is facing.

Chairman, Goa State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Peter Borges said that the Child Rights Commission is a quasi-judicial body. It monitors three laws. One is the Juvenile Justice Act, POCSO Act and the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

“We also take a lot of cases ‘suo moto’.  Section 44 of the POCSO Act deals with the monitoring cases related to crime against children. I am also doing a lot of analysis of POCSO cases,” he said.

The POCSO Act has completed 10 years. Borges was part of the Supreme Court’s Juvenile Justice Committee for reviewing the POCSO Act.

“What we found there was not very pleasant. Conviction under POCSO in Goa is negligible and compensation given to victims is almost zero. After analysing the data received from both the District Magistrates, it was found that at least 100 applications for compensation are pending,” Borges said.

There is a clause under the POCSO Act where the POCSO judge has the power to give interim compensation.

Auda Veigas said that when a victim is brought to her organisation, she has to register an FIR, get the copy of the medical report and with all that, there is form which is filled for the victim, along with her account number and then these are forwarded to the Collector’s office.

“Most of the time, the applications are rejected because of Section 4B of the Compensation Act, which says that if the accused is identified, then no compensation can be given. But, the child has to move on in life, has to go to school. At that time, the child and her parents need money,” she said.

Veigas informed that a meeting was held at the High Court and it has tried to put the matter in order. Already, an appeal has been submitted to the court. But how long it will take, can’t be said.

Adv Caroline Colaco informed that in the prison, every accused gets some money for the work they do. A portion of this amount is deducted and deposited in the Victim Compensation Fund.

“A lot of money gets collected under this Fund by the time the accused completes his sentence. But perhaps, it is not getting disbursed,” she said.

Auda Viegas said that the compensation rule came into being with the Nirbhaya Fund. “Where is the money? Why is the State not utilising it?” she asked.

Matthew Kurian said that a huge amount is sent back to the Centre. “One year, 80 per cent of the money was returned. Even the money received from the Centre was sent back. Neither we get enough funds, nor get them in time. I have more than 100 employees. I can’t defer their salaries. The authorities find some excuse to deny funds,” Kurain said.

Auda Viegas said that for 30 years, she operated her NGO without any government funds.

“I ran my NGO by selling articles, my own resources and voluntary donations,” she said.

Citing an example of Goa government’s apathy, Adv Caroline Colaco said that the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDV Act) was a very good act and was hailed after one year of the Act by women activists in Delhi.

“The strength of the Act would have been if the government had put in money for counsellors, for half-way homes and other such requirements. But when we studied the statistics at a seminar held to analyse the Act after completing two years, it was found that Goa was the only State in the entire country, which gave zero contribution towards the promotion of this Act,” she said.

“If the Goa government does not put the money where its mouth is, then the Act will automatically become redundant,” the senior rights lawyer lamented.

Auda Viegas said that there should be a Family Court to back up this Act.

“If there is a Family Court, the whole process gets simplified,” she said.

Peter Borges said that under the POCSO Act, a Special Judge on his own or on an application by a victim, could sanction interim relief. “But that practice has not started yet. That is supposed to be processed by the State Legal Service Authority. That has also not started. Because the scheme was not working properly, other States have made changes. For example, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh included a chapter in their original scheme to include Kerala and Delhi. A lot of amendments were made in the scheme to accommodate help for minor victims under POCSO Act,” Borges said.

But this is not being done in Goa, he said. He has now forwarded a file to the Special Secretary, Home, who is also the Secretary of the Goa State Commission for Protection of Child Rights to make sure that this compensation process is started in at least some places.

“I am of the opinion that once the court passes an order to give compensation, the government should pay it. It is very depressing to see that the whole system is not capacitated. POCSO rules are not notified in the State gazette,” he said.

He said that POCSO cases are supposed to be disposed off in one year, but in many cases it has taken five to six years.

“The support system available is meant to reduce the trauma of the victims. But the inordinate delay in the disposal of cases, making the victims recollect the traumatic experiences in court only causes more harm than any benefit to them,” the Chairman of the Goa State Commission for Protection of Child Rights said. Matthew Kurian said that the solution to all these issues is to promote and strengthen the NGOs and social workers working in this sector.

“The government has to trust people like us and empower us. Non implementation of rules, non release of funds, making the process extremely difficult for us to operate smoothly, does not help the cause of these unfortunate victims. Government has to loosen up,” Kurain said.

A lot of times, the crime against minors is perpetrated from within the family and the known circle. There are cases regarding parents killing their children getting reported. Why is this happening?

“This is because of the sudden explosion of the internet in our lives. Early adolescence is the stage where a lot of experimentation happens regarding sexual encounters,” Adv Caroline Colaco said.

Technically, the mandatory age for rape of a girl is under 18, irrespective of whether there was consent or not.

“But increasingly, girls in the age group of 16-17 make advances. They call the boys, love letters are written, and send text messages. Due to this, the judges tend to become lax in their judgement because the action looks voluntary, with consent,” she said.

On the issue of killing of children by the parents, she said that it could be an outcome of rising pressure within the family caused by marital discord.

“There has been a spurt in the number of divorce cases. I am literally tired dealing with cases of fighting for custody of children. What is happening is that one department does not know what the other is doing. Firstly, there is a lack of data analysis and correlation between the government departments is weak,” Adv Colaco said.

“We were studying the cases of domestic violence. One important element to consider in this issue is why the mental health condition of women is deteriorating. By looking at the data by Institute of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour, IPHB, Goa, we will find an increasing number of cases involving women suffering from depression,” she said.

According to her, there is a correlation between domestic violence and depression among women.

“If the family members are under so much stress, then there would be issues. Women are marrying late now, due to which it is commonly seen that children are born with physical and mental disabilities. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is a chronic condition that affects millions of children, is being increasingly seen today. All this is causing stress in the family and could result in an increase of killings,” the human rights lawyer said.

Auda Viegas said that separation and divorce is becoming a big issue, which is reflected in cases of violence against children.

“In fact, I have written a booklet on co-parenting and shared parenting. I have seen either of the parents depriving the other the right to meet the child. If there is a pressure exerted for meeting the child, there is a possibility of even killing the child, just to see that the child does not go to the mother or father,” Veigas said.

“The stress of marital discord has an adverse impact on the mental health of women. This is something that never gets addressed. That could cause her to do a lot of things, even indulge in killing her child, because she does not know what she is doing. She has lost her balance,” the Founder President of Bailancho Ekvott informed.

 Adv Chandan Shirodkar speaking from CWC’s perspective, said that here have been instances wherein most of the times migrant women want to admit their child in a shelter home as they are unable to take care of the child since either the husband has died, eloped with another woman or remarried.

“What we have realised is that their marital ties are not recognised by the government because they don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t even have any marriage certificates. They get married in the temples. Children are automatically put in the category of care and protection, because the mother can’t take care,” Adv Shirodkar said.

Secondly, they stay in such localities, which are supposed to be illegal but the authorities are turning a blind eye towards them.

“We have to go to the root of the problem. This is one of the basic and main roots. We send the Childline representatives to do the study of the particular family. It is found that the surrounding is dangerous, almost half of the colony has drunkards. Automatically, it becomes a vulnerable place for the child,” he said.

“The State of Goa is then left with no other option but to provide for these children, who otherwise don’t belong to this State. Their respective States are also capable of taking care of them. Also, many times, due to financial conditions or other geographical factors, many families are forced to migrate. But they come along with their children, not knowing where they would stay and what they would do,” Adv Shirodkar said.

Due to this, the CWC is facing difficulties in finding a safe shelter, especially for minor boys because the childcare institutions are almost full.

“These are some of the issues that should be highlighted by all governments, so the safety of children could be ensured,” the CWC member said.

The issues and challenges pertaining to the safety of our children are galore. The State government has to strengthen the hands of NGOs and social workers working towards welfare of children who are victims of sexual harassment and assault. Mere legislation is not enough. It is important that its provisions are implemented on ground in letter and spirit.