Smart, enthusiastic and brave — that’s how those who loved Pavithra (name changed) will always remember her. Pavithra had an army of friends. Always curious, she used to ask questions about everything under the sun. Bright, vivacious, energetic. Until a traumatic incident changed her life.
Four years ago, Pavithra was sexually assaulted by her neighbour — a college-going student. The 13-year-old girl withdrew herself from the world. ‘Why did it happen to me?’ is the only question she asks her mother these days. “She used to be brave even as a child. The incident has shaken her so much that she is scared of walking alone on the road,” says Pavithra’s mom.
Pavithra’s mother filed a case to seek justice for her daughter. The outcome of their action was far from what they hoped: the accused tried to lure the family with money and when they turned him away, he started threatening them. The family had to change homes.
The incident has not just robbed Pavithra of a normal adolescent life but also badly affected the financial stability of the family. The family relies on Pavithra’s mother’s meagre income, after her father lost his job more than a year ago. Despite many hurdles and even under circumstances when they had no money for a meal, the family didn’t turn hostile. They continued with the case, pinning hopes on the financial compensation that Pavithra is eligible to, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (Pocso) act.
When the Chengalpet Mahila Court convicted the accused and awarded a sentence of 15 years in prison, Pavithra began to nurture hopes afresh about the compensation. Sitting on a wooden chair in their modest 1BHK home, Pavithra said, “I want to be a nurse, akka. I can realise my dreams if the money comes within a year as it will help me continue with college,” says Pavithra. She is currently studying in class eleven in a government school.
An appointment…and new hope?
Last week, the Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme Department reconstituted the Tamil Nadu Commission for Protection of Child Rights, comprised of six members from across the state, with Chairperson Saraswathi Rangasamy at the helm. It may be noted Saraswathi had previously served in the same post between 2013-15.
The previous commission headed by M P Nirmala became inactive in May 2020 after the term of the chairperson and the members ended in January and May 2020 respectively. The body had been pretty much defunct since then.
The current move, significant in itself, has not brought a smile on Pavithra’s face though. “Even when the commission was active, they didn’t respond to the many representations we sent,” she said in a low tone.
If there is a monitoring body that should look into cases of injustice and abuse against children in the state, push for speedy decision on POCSO cases and ensure receival of compensation for the families of the victims, it is the Tamil Nadu Commission for Protection of Child Rights (TNCPCR), constituted under the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005 (Central Act 4 of 2006).
Set up in 2013, the Commission is the monitoring authority for the crimes related to Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, the Rights of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) (JJ) Act, 2015.
TNCPCR should work in convergence with other teams such as Child Welfare Committee, Juvenile Justice Board, District Child Protection Unit, Anti Human Trafficking Unit and Childline.
Many child sexual assault victims face the same plight as Pavithra and many among them do not even know of the existence of a body such as the TNCPCR. Considering these cases, the newly-appointed committee should focus on child issues that have been disregarded for decades now.
Delay in case progress, lack of funds and inability to cheer his daughter up has made Kamalesh (name changed) an alcoholic. His 15-year-old daughter was sexually abused four years ago. “I don’t want anything, not even the compensation…except the conviction of the accused,” Kamalesh says. A judiciary body with powers to collect information from the special courts, TNSCPCR can speed up the POCSO cases.
Committees on paper
Besides POCSO-related cases, SCPCR is vested with many responsibilities such as monitoring the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) act. But there seems to be no mechanism to register complaints, nor has the committee, even when active, been conducting regular meetings with the stakeholders to address the issue.
“It is just one of the many issues that the previous committees didn’t address. Maybe the new committee will,” Andrew Sesuraj, convenor of Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch said. Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch is a network of 100 organisations working on the welfare and rights of children in Tamil Nadu.
T Kuralamuthan, a social worker, points out yet another largely ignored area where the Commission is found to be lacking teeth. “TNSCPCR does not have an updated website and helpline for vulnerable communities or target groups to reach out to. For the children who are in conflict with law, the condition of the reformatory homes need to be monitored for maintenance of the physical, mental, psycological health of the inmates. Innovative programmes such as Early Offenders Prevention Programme must be fostered,” he said.
Tamil Nadu does not have to look far for inspiration. Its counterpart, the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KeSCPCR) has take significant steps towards child welfare reforms. According to its website, KeSCPCR surveyed 140 schools last year to understand if the infrastructure and other facilities matched the norms of RTE act.
“TNSCPCR should take up such surveys to safeguard the rights of children and to take remedial actions,” said Vanessa Peter, Policy researcher, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC).
The newly-appointed TNSCPCR should make up for its absence during the pandemic, when children were pushed to vulnerability on various fronts. “The Commission should focus on quick surveys on child marriages, nutrition, education and domestic abuse among the economically backward children,” felt Andrew Sesuraj. In one of the surveys by IRCDUC, it came to light that at least 71 percent of Chennai’s homeless had no access to education during the lockdown.
Monitoring the implementation of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, taking measures to reduce dropouts in schools, and getting data related to POCSO-cases from the Superintendent of Police of all districts are other vital, yet largely forgotten, responsibilities of TNSCPCR.
Could the solution lie in collaboration?
With one chairperson and six members who work only part-time, it is unlikely that the TNSCPCR will be able to extend its arms to all domains where it is empowered to. However, the commission can collaborate with child rights organisations on research, documentation and issues in various domains. “Organisations are willing to collaborate with the commission,” says A Devaneyan, a child rights activist.
Providing internship programmes for students pursuing bachelors/ masters in law and social work is another way of working around the shortage of hands. “It could be a win-win for both students and the commission. Students would be exposed to various child rights issues while the commission can benefit from the contribution and effort of students,” added Devaneyan.