On Monday, Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi initiated the process for removing the statute of limitations on reporting child sexual abuse. In a letter to Ravi Shankar Prasad, she asked the law minister to clarify that there is no limitation on survivors to report child sexual abuse even after “10 to 15 years”.

While activists welcomed the move, they pointed out that strengthening the existing systems for reporting abuse is the more pressing need. Moreover, it may only add to survivors’ trauma.

“Let us try to understand why children do not report such crime,” said Aitya Bose of Aangan Trust, which works for child protection. “We need to create an environment that enables children to speak about these issues. The solution isn’t changing the law. This is very multifaceted. We need to focus on what the survivor needs.”

The statute of limitations defines the time period within which legal action must be initiated if a crime is reported. In India, the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 does not specify a time period for a survivor to report the crime. It is also unclear on whether or not a survivor can report the crime after turning 18. Section 19, which details the procedure for reporting abuse, assumes the complainant to be a child, defined as “any person below the age of 18 years”. “In case contents are being recorded in the language not understood by the child or wherever it is deemed necessary, a translator or an interpreter shall be provided to the child if he fails to understand the same,” the Act states. It also emphasises that the victim shall be provided “care and protection”.

The Code of Criminal Procedure, though, provides for the statute of limitations in certain sections. Section 468 states that any offence, including child sexual abuse, punishable with a minimum of three years in prison must be reported within three years, with the limitation period starting on the day the offence occurs. Section 473, on the other hand, mentions the limitation period can be extended where “delay has been properly explained” and it is in the “interest of justice”.

The ongoing conversation to remove the statute of limitations on reporting child sexual abuse began in February when Purnima Govindarajulu, an Indian scientist based in Canada, told Gandhi she wanted to pursue a legal case against a relative who had sexually abused her as a child. Purnima had approached the women and child development ministry after her attempts to register a case with the Chennai police proved unsuccessful.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2016, the country recorded 1,06,958 cases of crime against children, 36,022 of them under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act. Of these, 19,765 were cases of child rape, a 82% increase over 2015. The conviction rate in these cases was 29.6% and the pendency rate 89%.

Need for closure

Reporting and tackling child sexual abuse in India is a “grey area”, said Suchitra Rao, a consultant on child rights to the Karnataka government and Unicef. “Children may not want to come out to their parents because of several emotional, psychological reasons, and also family dynamics,” she explained. “So the immediate and general response is to keep quiet.”

Currently, adults who are survivors of child sexual abuse have no recourse to legal action.

Then, there are questions about implementation. “When a survivor goes to police to file a complaint, they expect closure,” pointed out Kushi Kushalappa of Enfold, which supports survivors of child sexual abuse.

She wondered if removing the statue of limitations would really help survivors find closure considering how the country’s legal system works. “Doing this may just add more burden on the police,” she added. “How do they go about investigating a crime that took place years ago? The criminal justice system also has its limitations. While adult survivors need closure, we need to ensure that the system is better so children today don’t face this.”

Rao echoed this view, pointing out that in Karnataka, the police prioritise existing cases and may not have the resources to investigate cases from years ago. “This puts more pressure on the police,” she said. “Investigation takes time and a chargesheet has to be filed within 30 days. The police may also have other priorities outlined for them. This raises concerns on practical aspects.”

Some activists argued that the move could end up adding to a survivor’s trauma. “There is no confidence in existing systems,” said Vidya Reddy of Tulir Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, noting that most cases reported to police do not result in convictions. “The survivor would have to be cognisant of the fact that reporting a complaint would not necessarily lead to the perpetrator being punished. And this could add to the trauma. This is the social aspect of this change that needs to be looked into.”