In a span of 15 days, Goa has seen four cases of heinous child abuse, and once again a problem long known to exist is in the spotlight. The state is now witnessing an alarming rise in sexual abuse against children in the 7-16 age group. The recent arrests and investigation by social groups reveal that more than 10,000 paedophiles visit the coastal state every year and molest children, especially brought for the trade from Karnataka. Recent cases prove that many foreigners implicated in this exploitation lure children with expensive gifts and money. They also buy gifts for the families of the children, to convince them to let the young ones stay with them. But the exploitation is also Indian, and not limited to crimes committed by tourists.
The first of the recent cases is especially shocking. A 9-year-old girl was alleged raped by an Italian, aged 56 years, a frequent traveler to Goa. Navhind Times reported earlier this month that it is now believed that he has been abusing many children for over 10 years. A popular host to many parties, he used a perviously abused girl to procure a child as a domestic servant in his house. It is alleged that he raped her for three days continuously after tying her hands and legs, and that he performed forced anal sex on the little one.
A shameful history
Foreign paedophiles are not new to Goa; it is well known that many visit tourist destinations around the world for a few months every year, usually in the months corresponding with winter in their country of residence. In Goa, tourist agents involved in the racket provide information on beaches to visit, and how to find and approach potential targets. The 'channawalla' or the 'ice cream seller' on the beaches acts as a pimp. In some cases, a child lives with the paedophile in his room, with the knowledge of the proprietors of the hotel or guesthouse. A number of impoverished families from the nomadic Lamani tribe as well as from villages in northern Karnataka are engaged in vending wares on the beach. Their children inevitably interact with foreign tourists lounging on the beach, providing an easy and regular avenue for exploitation.
The history of this crime in the state is long, and as a result Goa is destined to become the child sexual abuse capital of the world, having already attained that status within India. The first 10-year long racket of paedophilia came to light in 1991. Freddy Peats, the aged mastermind, is presently serving life imprisonment in Goa along with his accomplice, New Zealander Eoghan Colm McBride, also into his sixties. Interestingly he enjoyed the respect of the people of Margao for his supposed dedication to the welfare of poor children. Five of his partners from Australia, Sweden, Bangkok, Germany and France are still absconding.
The state's response to these crimes has been appallingly indifferent; Peats' conviction was a rare prosecutorial success in an ocean of neglect and failures. More typically, cases are rarely brought, and almost never concluded properly. A good example of this is the case of John Colin Middleton, a 71 year-old Briton, who was arrested on 19 March 2001 from a guest house where he was found with three children he brought with him from Nepal. He was alleged to have served a sentence for a previous conviction for sodomy with a child in New Zealand. Middleton was released on bail on 23 March 2001. His passport was later returned to him and the case against him was declared 'closed'. Such arbitrary waivers of prosecution and punishment are common.
The legal picture
Paedophilia, or Child Sexual abuse [CSA], is the physical or mental violation of a child with sexual intent, usually by an older person who is in some position of trust and/or power, vis-à-vis the child. The term paedophile refers to any adult who habitually seeks the company of a child/children for the gratification of his/her sexual needs. A child is defined variously by different Indian laws. In this article, a child is defined by age - as anyone below the age of 18 years - as per the definition contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Child sexual abuse occurs in three ways typically: incestuous abuse (i.e. by family members of victims), sexual abuse by strangers, and child prostitution. In conservative societies, as ours is, incest is less likely to be reported to the police, because of fear of social disgrace. Families often chooses to 'resolve' the issue privately because they view it as not a criminal matter. From the victim's point of view, however, incest may be more traumatic than rape by strangers, because such behaviour may be continued over a period of time and the victim remains helpless to protect herself from such abuses. In addition, it may have long-term psychological effects. The victim develops an inner sense of guilt and depression, which may have long-lasting effects on her personality development.
The laws dealing with sexual offences do not specifically address child sexual abuse. It is disconcerting but true, the India Penal Code 1860 does not recognise Child abuse. Only rape and sodomy can lead to criminal conviction. Anything less than rape, as defined by the law, amounts to 'outraging the modesty'. These laws are problematic when applied to adult women, but they are even more difficult when applied to children. While sec. 376 IPC seeks to provide women redress against rape, it is rarely interpreted to cover the broad range of sexual abuses [particularly of children] that actually takes place. The word 'rape' is too specific, this does not include abuse on 'boys'; moreover, 'intercourse' is often interpreted to mean with an 'adult'.
Most of these forms of abuse are sought to be covered under sec. 354 of the Indian Penal Code as a violation of a woman's modesty. Offences under Sec. 354 of the IPC is a cognisable offence but is also bailable, which allows foreigners to simply leave the country before prosecutions begin. While Andhra Pradesh, by a state amendment, has made the offence cognisable, non-bailable and to be tried by a court of session [where the minimum punishment is imprisonment for 7 years, and a fine], other states have not followed. What is also lacking is a central law on the subject. The Juvenile Justice Act was amended and rewritten in 2000, but it makes no attempt to identify sexual abuse on children. Sec. 23 of the Act deals with assault, exposes, willful neglect, mental and physical suffering, for which imprisonment for a term of just 6 months is prescribed. Sec. 5 of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1956 prescribes punishment of not less than 7 years for inducing a child into prostitution, but does not directly address child abuse.
India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. India ratified this Convention in 1992. This international Convention obligates members States to protect and promote the physical and psychological health of children. State parties must take affirmative action in protecting children from all forms of sexual abuse, neglect, exploitation, torture, or any form of cruelty.
The Goa Children's Act
With sexual abuse of children becoming increasingly associated with the tourism trade, Goa formed a model law and proposed the establishment of a Children's Court. The idea of a Children's Court was first mooted in the Government of India Children Act 1960, which is today a forgotten piece of law. The Goa Children Act 2003 is legislation against child sexual abuse, especially those related to tourism. The legislation has specifically made any such cases of abuse non-bailable offences under section 2 (a) of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973. The fines and jail terms are also severe -- Rs 100,000 with imprisonment between one to three years for sexual assault and incest, and Rs 200,000 with seven to 10 years jail term in case of a grave sexual assault. The setting up of a Children's Court to try all offences against children is a bold step prescribed by this law. A child-friendly court will help to minimize the double trauma that abused children are subject to in courts, which even adults find awesome and terrifying.
Already there have been at least three cases booked under the Goa Children's Act. However, the rules of operation under the new law are yet to be formulated. The Goa Children's Act has also come in for severe criticism for its poor drafting, and the lack of legal insight into some of its provisions. The Act was passed in a great hurry to meet the growing problem of child abuse in the state, but ground realities have led it to rough weather. Activists in the legal community believe that the legislation may need drastic amendments to meet its objective.
It is absolutely necessary to alert government, civil society and concerned citizens to play a more active role in promotion, respect and appreciation of the rights of the child, and thereby to prevent the abuse of children, especially in sexual ways. Merely acknowledging this on the International Day for the Rights of the Child - 19th November - is insufficient. What is needed is continuous development of law and civil society responses to a perennial problem. In the legal arena, the problems in addressing child abuse are not so much related to the absence of law, but more due to the lack of a system of awareness, the lack of information, and poverty - which makes this problem that much challenging.
There is much that the legal system must do to improve its response to this crime. The baby steps a few states have taken must mature into adulthood themselves.