Reports of sexual violence against women and children on the rise again in India after an initial dip in crime with the onset of nationwide lockdown.
Judicial and legislative action along with rising awareness levels for forensics among state police forces in India behind increasing DNA testing in sexual offences
Several cases of rape committed against minors have been expedited in courts over the last six months, with the judiciary treating forensic DNA testing results as conclusive evidence. Across states, courts are emphasising scientific evaluation of evidence to convict the guilty, as survivors and their families are seen to go hostile during trial.
This pattern has emerged particularly in cases that are heard by special courts set up to provide protection to children from offences of sexual assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012. This is a significant trend considering the surge in cases of sexual violence against children during the nationwide lockdown in place since March 25 to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there has been a drop in overall crime including rape cases across India, lower reporting of sexual crime during the lockdown is also a factor keeping the numbers down. Contrary to public perception, a resurgence of sexual offenses against young women and children has been observed in states like Delhi, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana over the last month. In most of these cases, the accused are either family, friends, or neighbours of the victims.
In the recent months, four different courts in the states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu have convicted perpetrators found guilty of raping minors, primarily based on forensic DNA evidence connecting them to the crime. This was made possible because of proper and timely collection of biological evidence by the police and medical examiners from the crime scene and the victim's body following the incident. The evidence was then matched with DNA samples gathered from suspects leading to positive identification. In all cases, the courts disregarded conflicting statements made by hostile witnesses to arrive at their verdict.
"Traditionally, prosecution has depended on the sole evidence of rape victims in courts. Oral evidence of the victim, though sufficient to punish the rapist, has its limitations. Due to delays, a victim's memory often fades, because of which defence lawyers can manage to confuse them during cross-examination and make their statements appear to be contradictory and false," says Sr. Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Vivek Sood, taking note of the trend.
"Also, rape victims are known to turn hostile in the court due to fear of ostracism and family pressures. In many cases, courts are reluctant to punish the accused due to lack of corroborative evidence or eyewitnesses. In such a scenario DNA evidence goes a long way as a crucial piece of corroborative evidence that is authentic and substantive, even if the victim is hostile or incoherent in the court. DNA evidence is a game changer in sexual offenses," added Sood.
"In 2018, every fourth rape victim across the country was a minor and in almost 95 percent of rape cases, the offenders were known to the victims. These statistics not only show the vulnerability of children to sexual predators but also explain why rape survivors are pressured by their family to turn hostile," says DCP, Delhi Police, Suman Nalwa, bringing attention to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report.
"This is the gap that forensic DNA technology is addressing. Top-notch investigations in sexual crimes against women and children remains a priority for Delhi Police even during this pandemic and we're taking steps to equip the force with the training and resources for proper collection, handling and transportation of DNA samples in all such cases," added Nalwa.
Alongside judicial action, there's been a visible increase in reporting of DNA testing in rape cases by investigative agencies across India over the last year. Police departments are increasingly being recognised for successfully conducting forensic DNA based investigations to crack rape cases with encouraging reports coming from states like Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.
"Over the last couple of years, we have seen a noticeable improvement in quality of investigations with extensive use of advanced forensic technologies by police departments across the country. In Gujarat itself, there has been a remarkable increase in DNA casework across categories of crime including sexual offenses. Increasing awareness among the forces and their growing confidence in collecting and handling forensic DNA material is evident from the fact police investigations are increasingly being able to withstand judicial scrutiny in sensitive cases," claims Senior Gujarat IPS Officer, Keshav Kumar, who tracks forensic trends nationally.
Meanwhile, authorities continue to upgrade the country's DNA testing infrastructure to meet the growing demand. The central government recently operationalised the first of its kind 'DNA Analysis Unit' at CFSL, Chandigarh and approved the setting up of DNA analysis units in forensic labs in 13 states.
State governments too are sanctioning funds to augment the capacity of their forensic labs to ensure swift investigations, especially in cases of sexual violence. This seems to be correlated with laws passed in some states like the Disha Act following public outcry over the rape and murder of Hyderabad veterinarian last year, along with the ongoing awareness drive for application of DNA in fighting rape.
"India is clearly seeing a steady rise in the volume of forensic DNA casework but considering the scale of the rape problem, there's a need to increase testing levels exponentially. With half a million violent crimes reported every year and four rapes every hour, India only conducts over 20,000 tests in a year," observes Tim Schellberg, Founder and President, Gordon Thomas Honeywell--GA.
"DNA forensics have proved to be one of the most powerful tools worldwide to help nab criminals in sexual crimes. DNA evidence gathered with rape kits can identify an unknown assailant or confirm the presence of a known suspect. Not only can it connect the suspect to crime scenes and identify serial offenders, it can also exonerate those who are wrongfully accused," added Schellberg.
As per recent estimates, the number of DNA profiles developed from crime scene evidence has doubled over a year from 10,000 cases tested in 2017 to nearly 20,000 in 2019. Despite growth in the number of profiles being tested, the volume remains low especially in crimes against women and children. Official statistics show a dramatic increase in the number of crimes against women, which have shot up from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,356 in 2018 - a jump of 34 percent.
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( With inputs from ANI )