India turns tables on traffickers with child-friendly courts

People carry an Indian national flag which according to organisers measures 1100 metres (3609 feet) through a street during Republic Day celebrations on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, January 26, 2019. REUTRS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) guarantees child victims anonymity Image: REUTERS

Roli Srivastava
Climate Correspondent, India, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Radha was just 13 when she had to testify in open court against the people who trafficked her into prostitution in India, as a defence lawyer bombarded her with questions - why didn't she try to kill herself? Or run away?

Frightened, Radha attempted to reply, but the judge quickly shut the lawyer down.

"I was getting scared with the questions. I was trying to reply when the judge intervened," said Radha, whose full name the Thomson Reuters Foundation has withheld.

"The judge told the lawyer his questions were inappropriate, that I was a small girl. She told me to speak without fear. I felt better after that. I was no longer scared."

Trafficking victims in India have long faced similar ordeals - if their case gets to court at all. But Radha's case, which ended in conviction and a 10-year sentence for her traffickers, was unusual.

It was tried in one of India's first child-friendly courts in Beed, in the western state of Maharashtra, set up as part of a push to reduce the trauma victims face during trials.

The court is cosy, with sofas arranged in a square around a coffee table and a television on the wall, with an adjoining room with brightly painted walls, toys, chocolates and a bed where victims can rest.

A series of orders by India's Supreme Court, a 2015 government directive to make it easier for victims to bring cases and a 2012 child protection law have all helped make the legal system more victim-friendly.

Ravi Kant of Delhi-based anti-trafficking charity Shakti Vahini said there had been a "visible change" in the way courts handled cases, though progress was patchy.

"Earlier, victims were asked intimate details of what happened. The questioning lasted long hours when the defence lawyers would raise their voice," he said.

"The victims would then give contradictory answers to questions asked to confuse them such as the trafficker's shirt colour. We saw more acquittals than convictions."

In recent years, courts have handed rare life sentences to traffickers, denied them bail, recorded victim testimonies on video conference and in some cases ordered compensation for victims even before the trial was over.

Courts in Hyderabad and Delhi have made infrastructure changes to ensure victims do not face the accused in court, while defence lawyers are not allowed to make victims uncomfortable during questioning.

In Mumbai - Maharashtra's capital - courts trying cases of sex crimes against children now have a separate cubicle where the victim's testimony is recorded.

The 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) guarantees child victims anonymity and a sensitive hearing in court and provides for harsher punishment to offenders.

The Bombay High Court building in Mumbai, India, July 17, 2019 Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation


Yet Radha's case remains a relative rarity.

Just one in four trafficking cases in India ends in conviction and trials can stretch for years, with victims often withdrawing their complaints after being intimidated by traffickers.

There have been marked changes to the handling of cases involving trafficked children, but treatment of adult victims is inconsistent.

Many such cases are handled by the regular courts, though that could change. An anti-trafficking bill currently going through parliament includes a provision for special courts in every district to handle cases speedily.

For now, lawyer Debashish Tandon said victims were still having run the risk of encountering their alleged traffickers in court.

Tandon, who practises in the eastern city of Kolkata, spent a year building a bond with one young girl trafficked into sex work.

He persuaded her to share details of the abuse she and other victims suffered, including the death of one young girl which she witnessed.

"The victim was my main witness," said Tandon, who was seeking the death penalty for the trafficker.

"But on the day of her testimony, she saw the accused in the court. She broke down."

Coming face to face with the defendant "changes everything", said Tandon, who won the case despite the difficulties. The trafficker was convicted and sentenced to life in jail.


In 2015, India set aside nearly 100 billion rupees ($1.45 billion) to set up additional courts and make existing ones more user-friendly for litigants.

But it is unclear how much of that has so far been spent. India's department of justice did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking more information.

Maharashtra only started spending its funds in 2017. It has used them to redesign some courtrooms and make 12 fast track courts functional.

But it used less than half its annual allocation in 2017, spending only about a third in the following year, and remains a long way off its goal of upgrading 453 court complexes across the state.

"We are quick in creating specific categories of offences in law, but are failing to create matching judicial infrastructure," said Girja Shankar Bajpai, head of the Centre for Criminology and Victimology at the National Law University.

"Victim blaming, insensitive language by lawyers is still rampant."

Lawyers say that where changes have been made, the investment has paid off in increased convictions - though again, no up to date national data is available.

In Beed, conviction rates have doubled to about 60 percent following the court reforms, said Prachi Kulkarni, principal and district judge of Beed court.

"We were the first in Maharashtra to make the changes, second only to Delhi," said Kulkarni proudly.

It is a striking achievement for an area impoverished by successive poor rains that have forced desperate villagers to walk miles for water and, in many cases, migrate for work.

That was not an option for Radha's disabled mother, so she took her daughter to clothes shops to find a job.

Spotting them, one woman offered 5,000 rupees, calling it advance payment for a job that required the girl to go with her.

A month later, Radha was rescued from a brothel in a police raid.

Beed public prosecutor Manjusha Darande said the case against her traffickers was watertight, helped by the victim's "strong statement" in court.

Yet the handling of Radha's case was far from textbook.

She was given no counselling after her rescue, and was taken to the police station to give her statement, against official guidance that victims should be allowed to do so at home, said the judge in the case, Nazia Sadiq Shaikh.

She was not even told the outcome of her case until two weeks later, and no application has been made for the government compensation she is due for her ordeal.

Instead, within months of her rescue, Radha was married to a man twice her age with a three-year-old son who she takes care of.

"I feared she would be trafficked again. She is happy in her marriage now. We have kept her past from them," her mother said, as Radha looked on silently.

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