It is often a lack of awareness, shame and fear that keep child survivors from sharing their horrid experience of sexual abuse with parents or reporting to the police. But a nine-year-old in Kerala has proved that the right kind of sex education at schools and awareness about predatory behaviour, will not only help children differentiate between ‘bad touch’ and ‘good touch’, but also help them report sexual assault.
The testimony of the schoolboy has led to the conviction of a 50-year-old for five years under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. In his testimony, the boy clearly told the court that the man, a neighbour, had touched him in a “bad” way.
“I know it was bad touch, because I have been taught in school what a good touch and a bad touch are,” the boy told a fast track special court of POCSO at Thiruvananthapuram. The court did not require any corroborating evidence to prove the crime and proceeded with the conviction as the boy’s statement on the sexual assault was clear.
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“The man used to stay in a rented house nearby. My son was playing with his little brother on the veranda of the house when the accused approached them. A few minutes later, my son came running into the house, he was crying and appeared terrified. He told me that the man had touched his private parts. Initially, it was too shocking for me to believe. For a moment, I was sceptical whether it could be true. I called my husband and the child repeated the story to him too. He repeatedly told us that what the ‘uncle had done was bad touch and we should go to the police’,” the boy’s mother, an IT employee, told The Federal.
“He was very protective about his six-year-old little brother too. The younger one was playing without knowing what had happened. When the incident happened, my son rushed into the house and called his little brother inside,” the mother said.
She said even though the boy seemed terrified, it was his decision to report the assault to the police.
“He was very determined about it. As parents, it was our duty to support him,” she said.
Need for sex education, knowledge of right vocabulary
Experts say, the right awareness about sexual abuse, taught at school, is what helped the young boy call out his perpetrator.
“The incident sets an example to show how important sex education is,” says advocate Swapna, a public prosecutor at a POCSO trial court in Malappuram District.
“In courts, we often find children struggling to express the experience of sexual assault in words. Very young children do not even clearly understand what they have underwent and even lack the vocabulary to express the same,” says Swapna.
Children do not even know how to properly refer to the private parts in their body, say lawyers and councillors working for victims in POCSO cases. “Most often the private parts are referred to in euphemistic terms. The prosecutors and judges generally do not make the child explain further with the right terms because it would be traumatic for her or him,” says Swapna.
And it is the family which usually teaches children euphemisms for sexual organs instead of the right terms. “It is an urgent priority to provide sex education to the adults, rather than that to children,” says Dr. Hena Subadhra, the co-founder of Sex Education Kerala, a non-profit organisation focusing on sex education.
“From our experience, I can undoubtedly say that the lack of awareness among the adults is the most prominent reason for the sexual exploitation of children. Many people blindly believe that ‘this would not happen to my child’. As adults still consider sex a taboo, they prefer not to talk to children about it,” she says.
Hena agrees to Swapna’s argument about children not having the right vocabulary and language to express their experience of sexual abuse. “In many parts of Kerala, the euphemistic terms used to refer to the sexual organs are very colloquial which would not be understood in another district or village. This also creates a huge hurdle in getting a clear understanding about the nature of sexual exploitation,” says Hena.
Not only survivors and their families, police have also been found to be using euphemisms for sex organs or sexual act in the complaints.
“The cops generally do not use the exact terms while preparing FIS (First Information Statement),” says advocate Sandhya Rani, a defence lawyer at the POCSO court in Ernakulam. “Many of them generally write, ‘the accused touched the urinating part…’ They do not even use the terms penis or vagina. According to Sandhya, such vague references create confusion, often giving a scope for cross examination which would put the child in further trauma,” she says.
The terms used for sexual organs are often considered obscene in the local language. The synonyms of sexual organs are generally considered filthy and vulgar, which is yet another reason that makes children hesitant to use these terms in their statements.
According to lawyers, the POCSO courts generally do not demand any graphic detailing of the offence. Even a reference to the “touch on the child’s private parts” is sufficient enough for the court to convict the accused.
“The defence lawyer’s scope for a cross examination is very limited in POCSO cases. He can ask probing questions only if the court allows it. Generally, the judges are alert and they show a high level of sensitivity towards minor victims,” says advocate Aisha Jamal, a public prosecutor in a POCSO trial court.
Low conviction rate, ‘compromise business’
Despite the sensitivity of courts towards children, the conviction rate of POCSO cases is very low in Kerala. Why?
Swapna says while in most cases, the child’s testimony is sufficient for the conviction of the perpetrator, the survivor’s family often opts for an out-of-court settlement.
“Most of the defence lawyers ask the accused and his men to arrive at a compromise at any cost. Conviction is almost certain even if the child tells the court that ‘there was a bad touch’ by the accused. But, the child’s family often yields to pressure, intimidation or even offer of money and the child is asked to go back on his or her testimony,” she says.
According to a report tabled in the Kerala Assembly last year, convictions happened in only 2.87 per cent or 417 of 17,198 cases registered under the POCSO Act between 2016 and October 2021.
PE Usha, a gender rights activist says there is an entire network of lawyers working in the “compromise business.”
“Once a person is booked under POCSO, he get calls from lawyers. First they intimidate the person by saying that the case appears to be very serious and that the accused may be sentenced for a least of 20 years in jail. Then they come with offers to strike a compromise with the survivor,” Usha says. According to her, this is more profitable and viable for lawyers than building a defence for their client, especially when the child sticks to her/his testimony about the abuse.
What’s next? Understanding consent, sexuality, safe sex
Is sex education all about ‘good touch and bad touch’ and enhancing the vocabulary of children with the right terms? Certainly not. Hena Subadra says that the ‘good touch/bad touch’ exercise is not sufficient enough for the children to get clarity on what sexual abuse is.
“From our working experience, we have learned that children often get confused about these terms. They cannot clearly understand what exactly is meant by ‘good and bad’. If the ‘touch’ is of someone close to them and loved by them, they will not be able to identify the true intention. Hence we now use terms like ‘safe touch and unsafe touch’,” Hena told The Federal.
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According to Aysha Jamal, a public prosecutor at a POCSO court in Malappuram district, there is an urgent need to incorporate sexual education in the regular curriculum. “It is not only about making young kids understand what good touch and what bad touch is. The children in early teens are required to be given lessons on relationships, consent and safe sex. I have observed that many young boys who come to the court as accused don’t know a thing about consent. They don’t know that a minor cannot consent to a relationship under Indian law,” she says.
Despite being a prosecutor she says it is disheartening to see young boys being convicted for making such relationships which is a result of a lack of a better understanding of sexuality.