The number of those being prosecuted for engaging in child prostitution remains abysmally low.
In recent months, a number of politicians – Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Shaina N.C.and Rajendra Agarwal – have called for penalising those who engage in paid sexual exploitation of children. What may seem obvious to all – that if a person has sexual relations with a child, with or without the exchange of money, they should be prosecuted for it – is actually not in India. Despite the country having passed a specific law on sexual offences against children, Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO, 2012), the number of those being prosecuted for sexually exploiting children in exchange for a payment (child prostitution) remains abysmally low.
Upon asking why ‘customers’ of child prostitution are not prosecuted under POCSO, this is what I found: Lack of investigation or arrest strategies
Currently, the police’s actions on child prostitution are focused on rescuing victims. When they receive information about children and minors being prostituted, authorities either conduct a raid in the premises or first plan an entrapment of brothel managers by planting a decoy and then conducting a raid to nab the culprit at the time of the transaction.
Arrest or prosecution of sex offenders who solicit children for sex is not currently a mandate for the police in such operations. Even with the POCSO coming into force, there has not been any strategic-level planning on how the law – to criminalise offenders who sexually exploit children through prostitution – is to be implemented. There has been no report, articles or any question raised by activists on this point during the years.
Vidya Reddy, whose work on child sexual abuse and the implementation of POSCO is well known in India, speculates that “Sex offenders who pay to sexually exploit children have perhaps escaped the gaze of the prosecution or law enforcement because somehow, in our unconscious mind, the financial transaction is interpreted as consent”.
Lack of investment in intelligence gathering on child prostitution
For most organised crimes and mafia monitoring, police gather intelligence from multiple sources, including undercover agents and informers. Telangana recently constituted a task force in Hyderabad to monitor cybercrime, including online sexual exploitation of children. Over the last decade, with the advent of smartphones and internet technology, the need for red-light districts has lessened, which used to serve the purpose of a physical marketplace for sex trade.
With solicitation and procurement having moved online, sex work has moved to private residences, hotels and lodges. This has also made monitoring and vigilance much more difficult. Non-profit organisations like International Justice Mission, Justice and Care, Freedom Firm or Rescue Foundation, that specialise in community vigilance to detect sexual exploitation of children and minors report that vigilance in a red-light district is much easier than monitoring lodges, hotels or private residences where children are being sexually exploited. The vigilance networks have to monitor a larger area and have to use different strategies to detect sexual exploitation of children.
A senior police officer in Bengaluru said, “We know that there is prostitution in Bengaluru or the whole of Karnataka, as in any other state of India. But we do not monitor sex trade per se, and therefore we do not have any statistics, data or information on what part of that sex work involves children, minors or forces adults for sexual exploitation, and what part may be of voluntary sex workers. We only act when there is a specific report of a case, which is usually by a social organisation working on the issue. They get us the intelligence”. He added that while they have a budget which could be used for any research, the decision on whether to use it for this issue or not is a decision between the state government and the chief of police of the state.
Doubts about evidence
“Even if we were to arrest ‘customers’, how can we prove his crime?” – this was the question being asked by law enforcement chiefs in several states. “Even if we arrest customers during a raid, and that moment, there is a scurry where we don’t exactly find the sex offender in the act with the child or minor, what evidence should I gather?” In cases of child sexual abuse or even rape, forensic evidence may be gathered shortly after the incident, but in the case of child prostitution, when the child is being rescued, she may have been prostituted to several men in a week. These doubts reflect lack of strategic planning by the law enforcement, research and the application of the mind to build strategy.
Victims turn hostile, lack of rehabilitation support
Police officers and prosecutors from different states report that in most cases, victims turn hostile, and in the absence of strong support, their statements during the trial are inconsistent with the facts of the case presented by the prosecution. In some cases, this is deliberate because the victim may not wish to pursue the prosecution of the accused. Police and prosecutors fear that even if ‘customers’ are prosecuted, without strong material and circumstantial evidence, and a strong victim to withstand trial, the prosecution would fail. Reasons behind victims turning hostile include poor rehabilitation support, incarceration and forced institutionalisation in shelter homes, lack of protection from threats and intimidation from offenders. Unless these issues are worked on seriously and urgently by the Women and Child Development offices, law enforcement efforts will not have an impact.
No investigative journalism on the issue
Media research shows that reporting on child prostitution is restricted to covering news reports on rescue, or in the last year, focused on the trafficking bill. With regard to sex offenders, there have been reports on accused in cases of rape and child sexual abuse, but never sex offenders who solicit children for prostitution.
Doubts over the culpability of customers
A range of people, including police officers, activists and journalists feel that even if a person is found to be having paid sex with a minor. There is an acknowledgement, however, that there is a stronger demand for younger women or even ‘new women,’ including virgins. Research shows there are three types of ‘clients of prostitution’.
People who specifically solicit children and minors would pay higher amounts for the same, and are not interested in adults to buy sex from. They are also the ones who would look for prepubescent children. Their orientation may be narrow and specific.
People who may not specifically seek a minor, but demand in the age group of 16 to 22. While they may not discriminate between a 17 or 19-year-old, they seek young people.
They may be people who seek prostitution but may have had sex with a minor, not by a specific demand. There is also a section of ‘customers’ who decidedly do not like to have sex with adolescents and children, and prefer those in their twenties. Because there has not been any serious thinking about the implementation of POCSO in prosecuting sex offenders prostituting children, these doubts remain unclarified.
The demand for children and minors for prostitution often comes from the wealthier, more powerful – and any action outing them, prosecuting them will create a backlash, and without political support for the police to protect them from the backlash, it is unlikely that lower or mid-level police officers will take on such strategic risks.