India’s Supreme Court reverses ruling that cleared man of child sexual assault charges due to lack of ‘skin contact’

Supreme Court of India. Photo: sci.gov.in

India’s Supreme Court has overturned a ruling that sparked outrage when it cleared a man of sexual assault of a young girl because there was no “skin-to-skin contact.”

Thursday’s (Nov. 18, 2021) verdict, which struck down a decision from earlier this year, said the key factor was that there was “sexual intent.”

The state had appealed to the top court after a high court judge in Mumbai ruled that the lack of skin contact meant that the man – who was accused of touching a 12-year-old girl over her clothes and trying to undress her – only faced the charge of molestation, which carries a lower sentence than sexual assault under 2012 legislation meant to protect children from sexual offenses.

That ruling had angered activists and legal experts, who warned it would set a dangerous precedent and deter children from speaking out about abuse. Many also worried it would undermine attempts to crack down on assault against women in India, which has toughened laws on sexual violence since a national outcry over the brutal 2012 gang rape of a young woman on a bus.

Lawyers and advocates welcomed Thursday’s reversal of a decision some had described as “outrageous.” The National Commission for Women, a government body that had filed one of the appeals, said the reversal would help safeguard children’s rights. Its chairwoman, Rekha Sharma, added that she hoped the man’s three-year prison sentence for sexual assault would be enforced.

A Supreme Court judge, criticizing the earlier ruling, said that “restricting the interpretation of the words ‘touch’ or ‘physical contact’ to ‘skin to skin contact’ would not only be a narrow and pedantic interpretation . . . but it would lead to an absurd interpretation” of the legislation, according to legal website LiveLaw.

Attorney General KK Venugopal had argued that the lower court’s reasoning on skin contact meant that someone wearing gloves could get away with assault. He has said nearly 43,000 cases of sexual offenses against children were registered last year.

Rights activists such as Brinda Adige say the number of abuse cases is probably higher but stigma stops people from coming forward. Speaking on Indian television after Thursday’s ruling, she said: “We need to understand that no matter how progressive the law is . . . there’s a lot . . . of silencing.”

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