A 39-year-old man, who had been sentenced to three-year imprisonment by a sessions court for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl, will remain behind bars for a far shorter period, probably only a year. The Bombay High Court has acquitted him of charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act while upholding his conviction under the IPC’s Section 354 (assault or criminal force to a woman with intent to outrage her modesty). The High Court has ruled that groping a minor’s breast without ‘skin to skin contact’ cannot be termed as sexual assault as defined under the POCSO Act. This literal interpretation of the law is not in consonance with its spirit of deterrence. Whether the offender removed the victim’s clothes or not before groping her is of no consequence in view of the enormity of the crime. It was a sexual assault without doubt, even if there was no ‘direct physical contact’.
In another case from Maharashtra, a special POCSO court recently sentenced an autorickshaw driver to rigorous imprisonment for life for sexually assaulting a five-year-old girl. For the record, Maharashtra accounted for 8,503 of the total cases — the maximum among all states — registered in India under the Act during 2017-19, according to three-year data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat are the other states with a high rate of registration of sexual offences targeting children, even as many such cases go unreported due to familial and societal pressures.
There is no denying that kids are vulnerable to sexual crime, particularly at the hands of people known or related to them. Such an experience can leave a child psychologically scarred for life. While there is a case for making provisions of the POCSO Act more stringent so as to leave no lacunae that offenders can exploit, the courts should show zero tolerance for the abominable acts and not let technicalities weaken judgments. A relatively mild punishment will only embolden the predators and discourage the little victims.