Experts acknowledge challenge in proving child sexual abuse years later, but say at least discussion around suffering of the victim has started.
New Delhi: It was in February this year that Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi first expressed her desire to lift the time bar on reporting sexual abuse cases. It happened after she met a 53-year old Indian-origin-scientist from Canada who had allegedly been sexually assaulted as a child.
“The substance of it will be that if you have been molested at some point in time when you were a minor, then you are still entitled to get justice,” Gandhi had then said.
On Monday, Gandhi wrote to Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, seeking clarity over whether the statute of limitations, which sets a time limit of three years to report certain crimes, applies to child sexual abuse.
“We are of the view that cases of child sexual abuse can be reported by the victim at any time and law enforcement agencies would be required to take appropriate actions on the complaint of such victim,” she wrote in the letter.
“Studies have also shown that the child continues to carry the trauma of sexual abuse till very late in life,” Gandhi added.
“But I know when your body is abused, you remember it always. I don’t care when the complaint is filed but action should be taken.”
‘Welcome acknowledgement’ of suffering
While the modalities of the proposed move are yet to be outlined, some child rights activists welcomed the initiative.
“I am extremely glad that she is calling out to the trauma of women and highlighting the importance of restoring their sense of justice in some way,” said Enakshi Ganguly, the co-founder of Haq: Centre for Child Rights.
“Usually, there is just silence around this issue,” she added.
“We know for a fact that it sometimes takes women a lot of courage to speak up… and there are tremendous compulsions, including survival compulsions,” she said.
“So when they do speak up — whenever that happens — there has to be some way to restore their sense of justice,” said Ganguly.
However, certain questions remain. When Gandhi first mooted the idea in February, she acknowledged that proving abuse years later could be challenging.
“The only problem I envisage is that, how do you prove it?” she said at the time, “(But) The best we can hope is that people get frightened that they could land in trouble.”
Ganguly agreed. “If someone was abused at the age of five, how will they prove it at 50? That’s why the legal route cannot be the answer alone,” she said, “But at least the discussion around the suffering of the victim has started.”
Child rights lawyer Anant Kumar Asthana, however, is less optimistic.
“It is obvious that police will not be able to investigate such a case…” he said, “If it is a 15-year-old case, and you are reporting it now, how will they get evidence/witnesses?”
“If you really want to intervene, you need to see how to create mechanisms that allow survivors to report abuse immediately,” he said. “The government cannot be okay with an existing problem — which is that children don’t report.”
While the minister’s letter has got much coverage, Asthana believes it is only a request for reiteration of the law and “nothing new”.
He said the statute of limitations anyway applied to cases where the offence was punishable with imprisonment of up to three years.
“For offences that are punishable with more than three years imprisonment, there is no period of limitation, and most child abuse cases fall under this category,” said Asthana.
Section 468 of the CrPC, which delineates the period of limitation of reporting various offences, makes no mention of cases that entail more than three years in jail, implying that it does not apply to those offences.
“So what is new in what she has said?” he asked.