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CHILDLINE India Foundation » DOCUMENTS & REPORTS » Cause Viewpoint » Must we or must we not reduce the age of a juvenile (in India) to 16 years?

Must we or must we not reduce the age of a juvenile

The recent gang rape of a 23-year old girl in New Delhi, India raised a lot of pertinent questions in the minds of the public. People across the country reacted with rage and hurt and collectively came together to start a movement for the safety of women in India. In the midst of this agitation, the media shared details about a young boy whose odious acts of violence further sculpted public opinion. The people of India called for amendments in the juvenile justice system by reducing the age of juveniles to 16 years (currently 18 years) whilst child rights organizations/activists argued to adhere to the present justice system for children.

Who was this young boy who climbed onto the bus and participated in the atrocities caused to the young girl? Where was he from? Why would he indulge in a heinous crime at the tender age of 17 years?

Was the boy a child who benefited from India's child development and protection initiatives? Did the child enjoy his full complement of Rights including the Right to free and compulsory education? Did he gain from health care initiatives of the Government of India? We all know the answer- like the 40% of India's marginalized children, he suffered. Including possibly deep parental/family/community neglect. By what measure must we gauge a child's conduct when he/she has been prey to abuse, had no family support, no education and had the footpath as his home?

As a nation with the largest population of children in the world, have we given much thought to the reason behind which children turn to crime? No. Instead, we jump to reduce the age of a child to 16 years and make amendments to laws that affect the greater part of society that needs such laws protecting them. Every child below 18 must be able to fully realize their rights under the UNCRC (United Nations Conventions on the Rights of a Child): The Right to Survival, Development, Participation and Protection. The issue of "neglect" in a country where a third of the population lives below the poverty line is impossible to overlook. As the primary duty bearer for Child Rights, the state has to step in and ensure every child has access to his/her rights. How else can we prevent a hungry child from becoming an angry juvenile delinquent?

Lowering the age of a juvenile is far more complex than we foresee.

India is a signatory to the UNCRC which mandates the age of a child to be below 18 years. Countries all over the world use this definition. India too, defines a child between the ages of 0-18 years. By law, he/she is not allowed to vote, sign a contract or engage a lawyer because he /she is not considered mature enough to make such decisions. Neuroscience proves in more ways than one, that an adolescent is at an age where he/she is not mature enough to understand the consequences of his/her actions. He/she is still vulnerable and can live a normal healthy adult life if allowed to undergo reformation through corrective measures. Our reluctance to acknowledge and prevent issues that cause children to turn to crime is a detriment to society. Why not have the State take responsibilities for their duty as care takers to our children?

Proper guidance, corrective treatment, education, healthcare etc gives a child a chance to reform. It is the responsibility of the community and state to provide these facilities to a child in order to increase the possibility of a better life. Instead, children are sent to remand homes, observation homes etc where they are subject to various forms of abuse. How then is a child supposed to grow up normal if provisions made for him/her lead him to further crime?

Most children have hope for reformation. With adhering to current juvenile justice laws, we give our children hope for a better life.

Recommendations made by the Justice Verma Committee

Assuming that a person at the age of 16 is sent to life imprisonment, he would be released sometimes in the mid-30s. There is little assurance that the convict would emerge a reformed person, who will not commit the same crime that he was imprisoned for (or, for that matter, any other crime). The attempt made by Ms. Kiran Bedi to reform Tihar Jail inmates was, and continues to be, a successful experiment. But we are afraid that that is only a flash in the pan. Our jails do not have reformatory and rehabilitation policies. We do not engage with inmates as human beings. We do not bring about transformation. We, therefore, breed more criminals including juveniles) in our prison and reformatory system by ghettoing them in juvenile homes and protective homes where they are told that the State will protect and provide for them, but which promise is a fruitless one.

Children, who have been deprived of parental guidance and education, have very little chances of mainstreaming and rehabilitations, with the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act being reduced to words on paper.

We are of the view that the 3 year period (for which delinquent children are kept in the custody of special home) is cause for correction with respect to the damage done to the personality of the child. We are completely dissatisfied with the operation of children's' institutions and it is only the magistrate (as presiding officer of the Juvenile Justice Board) who seems to be taking an interest in the situation. The sheer lack of counselors and therapy has divided the younger society into 'I 'and 'them'.

It is time that the State invested in reformation for juvenile offenders and destitute juveniles. There are numerous jurisdictions like the United Kingdom, Thailand, and South Africa where children are corrected and rehabilitated; restorative justice is done and abuse is prevented. We think this is possible in India but it requires a determination of a higher order.