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Dr. Debarati Halder expert interview – India

Dr. Debarati Halder is Managing Director, Centre for Cyber Victims Counselling, India

I have observed an explosion in different types of online victimizations targeting women and children, and it is becoming very common. I have dealt with cases that fit all patterns of online sexual abuse, including grooming, image-based sexual abuse, and online sexual coercion and extortion. 

Perpetrators are found across age ranges. For example, there are instances where children are abused by their own peers in WhatsApp groups and via social media platforms like Instagram. Of particular concern is that victims and perpetrators of image-based sexual abuse are particularly prevalent amongst teenagers. 

The Information Technology Act, 2000, was amended in 2008 with one provision addressing [CSAM]. Other than this, we have a colonial-era Penal Code as the central law. This statute has some provisions that prevent obscene contents and circulation of such contents to children. But with the 2008 amendments to the Information Technology Act, and the introduction of new acts like the POCSO Act in 2012, several issues of online child sexual abuse are addressed. 

However, the new amendments did not cover sexting, image-based sexual abuse, bullying, or trolling. These are covered using existing statutes in the Indian Penal Code, POCSO Act, IT Act, etc. These types of offenses must be recognized and gaps in cyberlaw closed. The limited accountability of website platforms also needs to be addressed. 

The long-existing void has created space for perpetrators to exploit children online. This includes showing or grooming children for sexual exploitation purposes, using children for pornographic purposes, and sharing sexually explicit images with children. 

Child-related victimization laws are improving but India lacks proactive mechanisms to trap offenders. Some cases are booked by police but few go to trial. 

In most cases, especially in rural areas, the police lack training in how to investigate cybercrimes, handle evidence, and deal with victims. Access to technology is also an obstacle. 

Police without specialist training may not understand the nature of the crimes. Victim blaming, and caste and class discrimination are also problems. But when it comes to prosecution, there are strict guidelines that the police and courts are required to follow. 

It is important that complainants preserve evidence of abuse. Unfortunately, it is common for incriminating content to be deleted. Some families feel reluctant to take matters to the police and courts. Problems include slow reporting, vanishing digital footprints, and the withdrawal of cases for fear of further trouble. Social stigma and victim-blaming by families and communities are also challenges but I have seen several families defending their victimized children. 

There is a gradual improvement in raising awareness but it is crucial that more is done to sensitize children, with parents, teachers, and other key players. First and foremost, people need to be aware of different types of cybercrimes and related laws. Precautionary advice should be easily accessible, including being taught about cyber security, data breaches, and the risk of spyware and hacking software. Devices handled by children are especially prone to security breaches because children often download games and songs that may contain spyware software that can access private images. 

However, it is also important that parental digital surveillance does not impinge on a child’s privacy and dignity. Parents, educators, and caregivers need to act like digital guides, not cyber-stalkers. Close surveillance should only apply if there are clear indications that the child may be at risk or is potentially a perpetrator.

This interview was shared as part of our 2021 report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards.