February 14, 2020
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Doctor's Orders

For the first time, psychologists' assessment of a rape victim turns basis for a ruling

Doctor's Orders
Illustration by SORIT
Doctor's Orders
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Landmark Judgement...
  • It's a first in India: a court has taken psychologists' assessment of the victim as evidence in a child sexual abuse case
  • The accused, the father of the victim, was sentenced to seven years RI by an additional sessions judge in Delhi
  • The judgement could set a precedent
  • Experts feel psychologists' report can be taken as evidence in such cases that don't have witnesses or material proof

***

At first glance, 18-year-old Geeta (name changed) looks like any other teenager you would probably miss in a crowd of college students. She has been working at a call centre for the last fortnight. Petite, soft-spoken, there is nothing in her persona that suggests a traumatic childhood. Neither does she look like someone who could have summoned up enough courage to stand up and bring to justice the person who had hurt and sexually abused her for almost three years. But Geeta's horror story is that much more shocking because the person who violated her was her own father. On December 21, 2007, a Delhi court sentenced the man to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.

But Geeta's is a landmark case for a very different reason. It is for the first time in the country that a court has taken the assessment of psychologists who counselled a rape victim as evidence. Their evaluation, along with Geeta's testimony, was what the additional sessions judge relied upon while passing judgement. Says high court lawyer Nandita Rao: "It's unusual for a trial court to take into account a psychologist's assessment to corroborate a child's account of sexual and physical abuse. To that extent, the order is significant."

The judgement states that the victim, who initially hesitated to speak to the police, disclosed everything to the psychologists. It is in them that she confided. To quote from the court order, "The truthfulness of the prosecutrix and her mother is reflected from the fact that the mother of the child herself came to know about the rape of her daughter from the psychologists attending on her."

Geeta's ordeal began in the summer of 2000 when she was little over 10 years old. That was when her father sexually assaulted her for the first time. Given to violence and known to beat his two daughters and wife, Geeta's father went a step further with her. He would often send his wife away from home on one pretext or the other and force himself on his younger daughter after physically abusing her. He managed to create a culture of silence through fear to ensure the victim would not breathe a word. Psychiatrists say it is natural for men who physically abuse their children to turn to sexual abuse. Violence arouses such men and is followed often by sexual assault. Recalls Geeta's mother: "I didn't realise my child was being abused till one day I saw her crying and crouching against the wall."

Geeta says her father was too powerful for her to put up any resistance. Her health took a hit and her studies suffered. But for months together, it did not occur to her mother what Geeta was undergoing. It was after a particularly violent assault in 2003 that Geeta's mother rushed to the police to lodge a complaint.

A 2002 court order said once a case of physical abuse of a child is registered, the victim and his/her family must be provided counselling by psychologists. It was during extensive counselling sessions that Geeta revealed how she was subjected to repeated sexual abuse by her father. For clinical psychologist Rajat Mitra along with his wife Nidhi, who were counselling her at the time, Geeta displayed all the symptoms one would associate with a sexually abused child. "She would cover herself up. Unlike a physically abused child, who may cower in fear of being beaten up, Geeta's hands immediately went around her breasts and genitalia in a protective gesture," says Mitra. Geeta, during counselling, gave harrowing accounts of how her father had raped her on several occasions.

While the psychologists could empathise with Geeta, it took some time to convince the police. "The cops often asked me to drop the case after my husband kept falling at my feet in their presence," recalls Geeta's mother. Finally, the police, who had initially booked the girl's father under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (which deals with physical abuse), also charged him under Section 377 for rape and molestation.

Sexual violence against children is nothing new. According to activists and psychologists who work with children, one child out of every five is sexually abused in the country. But less than two per cent cases get reported and, worse, convictions are very rare. In Delhi alone, 50 cases are registered every year. But, according to estimates, for every reported case, there are close to 200 that go unreported. Last year, an extensive survey of child abuse conducted by ngos for the Union department of women and child development revealed that at least 25 per cent of children are sexually abused by their own relatives.

Geeta's case, say her lawyers, wasn't an easy one to present in court. In the absence of witnesses, the defence lawyer raised questions on the veracity of the victim's account. Doubts were also raised on whether the psychologists were influencing the child to depose against her father. It was also argued that considerable time had lapsed between Geeta's abuse and the registering of the case for her testimony to be accurate. It took four years for the wheels of justice to turn. The counsel psychologists urged Geeta to share her story with the police and later to testify in court. The psychologists were made to state as witnesses.

Eminent jurist V.S. Malimath, under whom the Union home ministry had set up a committee to suggest reforms in the criminal justice system seven years ago, says it is important for investigating agencies to be sensitive when handling cases of sexual abuse of children. "Investigation is the very foundation of the criminal justice system. It has to be treated in a highly professional manner. In the absence of professionalism, the agencies have to depend on other professionals like psychiatrists to bring justice to the victim," says Malimath, a former chief justice of the Karnataka and Kerala high courts. And to that extent, Malimath says, the order of the Delhi court is encouraging.

There is relief writ large on Geeta's face. She wants to put the past behind her and move on in life. Her future plans? "I am grateful to the legal system which has backed me to the hilt. I want to study law and sensitise girls on how the legal machinery can come to their aid," she says. "Above all, I want girls to speak up whenever they feel threatened."
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