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Crimes against kids, women rose in a year in Chennai

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Chennai: Cases under the Pocso (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, 2012 and that of molestation have doubled in Chennai in 2021 from 2020 and in general all crimes against women and children have increased during this period, shows police data.

Police officials say that this year they receive at least one complaint a day at the all-women police stations across the city. They attribute this to lockdown restrictions being lifted which in turn increased movement and criminal behaviour, pegging it as a societal problem. Another perspective marks this as increased awareness. Senior police officials and activists believe that the trend of increasing cases is a good sign that women and children are coming forward to report.

Data shared by the Greater Chennai City police with HT shows that Pocso cases were 239 in 2020 which doubled to 435 in 2021 and stands at 49 as of February this year. Similarly all crimes against women and children, such as rape, molestation, abduction, dowry deaths, cruelty by husband and his relatives, sexual harassment booked under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Women Harassment Act have all increased during this year’s time.

There is a combination of reasons for the increase, says Syamala Devi, assistant commissioner of the wing of Crimes against Women and Children Wing under Chennai police functioning as the pilot project of union and state governments. The city had seen its first Covid-19 case in March 2020 after which there were nationwide and state lockdowns and Devi says after the lockdown was lifted, more children began opening up about crimes against them. “One, criminals began moving around and there was an increase in crime rate and old crimes which were committed during the lockdown also began to surface belatedly,” Devi said. “And there has been increased awareness which has encouraged more children and women to have the courage to come forward and complain.”

This aspect where victims are overcoming social stigma to complain, particularly children, is because of a catalyst. Last June, in what was termed as Chennai schools’ #metoomovement, there was an outpouring of students and alumni recounting sexual abuse they faced inside classrooms, on the sports field and during online classes conducted due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the city’s schools. As anonymous complaints rapidly accelerated on social media, the officers from the Wing approached children and their families and convinced most of them to file police complaints so that they could file an FIR. At least a dozen teachers, coaches and Godamn Siva Sankar Baba (founder of an international school) were arrested in Chennai. This has created a cascading effect where students from across Tamil Nadu have begun calling out their teachers for sexual abuse and approaching the SCPCR and police with complaints.

“This definitely made a change,” says Devi. “Women came to us complaining about sexual assault they faced at the hands of their teachers even 20 years back. But Pocso Act didn’t even exist at that time so we cannot take retrospective action. Having worked with many victims, one thing I can say for sure is that they have a sense of satisfaction by just reporting the crime. And we are ensuring that charge sheets are filed within 60 days so that the accused doesn’t get bail.”

A senior member of Chennai’s Child Welfare Committee who did not wish to be identified also said that it has been particularly challenging as crimes against children have increased amidst the pandemic. “There have been more school dropouts and because of that more child marriages,” she said. “There are several cases of elopement and we have to report them. Such issues have increased after the lockdown was lifted.”

Devi agrees and says that 90% of the Pocso cases are those of youngsters eloping. “According to the boy and girl below 18, they are lovers but the law sees them as accused and victims,” says Devi.

The special wing provides additional functionalities such as active policing, intelligence gathering, tackling organised crime against women and children, monitoring proper implementation of the legislative provisions, conducting awareness camps with community participation to prevent the crimes. Vehicles launched under the Nirbhaya safe city project called ‘Pink Patrol’ which is a mobile women police patrol vehicle includes installing surveillance cameras near schools, colleges and other areas funded by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in collaboration with the Ministry of Home Affairs. “The awareness vehicles are scheduled to go to educational institutions in the morning and public places such as beaches in the evening. We want to invoke fear that such offences against children cannot be committed. We are educating the children to complain to teachers, parents and to get in touch with us–the easiest is through the Kavalan (meaning police in Tamil) SOS app,” said Devi. “And we don’t do this for just one gender, we include the boys too.”

The Chennai police is now also working with other departments such the Public Works Department and the electricity board on infrastructure issues such as putting up lights on dingy streets, clearing of garbage mounts so that the environment feels safe. The Greater Chennai Corporation has also introduced the gender lab which was launched by the city’s civic and police commissioners besides the mayor to build the city where women, children and members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel safe.

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