BEED, India: Radha was just 13 when she had to testify in open court against the people who trafficked her into prostitution in India, as a defence lawyer bombarded her with questions — why didn’t she try to kill herself? Or run away? Frightened, Radha attempted to reply, but the judge quickly shut the lawyer down.
“I was getting scared with the questions. I was trying to reply when the judge intervened,” said Radha, whose full name has been withheld.
“The judge told the lawyer his questions were inappropriate, that I was a small girl. She told me to speak without fear. I felt better after that. I was no longer scared.”
Trafficking victims in India have long faced similar ordeals — if their case gets to court at all. But Radha’s case, which ended in conviction and a 10-year sentence for her traffickers, was unusual.
It was tried in one of India’s first child-friendly courts in Beed, in the western state of Maharashtra, set up as part of a push to reduce the trauma victims face during trials.
The court is cosy, with sofas arranged in a square around a coffee table and a television on the wall, with an adjoining room with brightly painted walls, toys, chocolates and a bed where victims can rest.
A series of orders by India’s Supreme Court, a 2015 government directive to make it easier for victims to bring cases and a 2012 child protection law have all helped make the legal system more victim-friendly.
Ravi Kant of Delhi-based anti-trafficking charity Shakti Vahini said there had been a “visible change” in the way courts handled cases, though progress was patchy.
“Earlier, victims were asked intimate details of what happened. The questioning lasted long hours when the defence lawyers would raise their voice,” he said.
“The victims would then give contradictory answers to questions asked to confuse them such as the trafficker’s shirt colour. We saw more acquittals than convictions.”
In recent years, courts have handed rare life sentences to traffickers, denied them bail, recorded victim testimonies on video conference and in some cases ordered compensation for victims even before the trial was over.
Courts in Hyderabad and Delhi have made infrastructure changes to ensure victims do not face the accused in court, while defence lawyers are not allowed to make victims uncomfortable during questioning.
In Mumbai — Maharashtra’s capital — courts trying cases of sex crimes against children now have a separate cubicle where the victim’s testimony is recorded.
The 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) guarantees child victims anonymity and a sensitive hearing in court and provides for harsher punishment to offenders.
Yet Radha’s case remains a relative rarity.
Just one in four trafficking cases in India ends in conviction and trials can stretch for years, with victims often withdrawing their complaints after being intimidated by traffickers.
There have been marked changes to the handling of cases involving trafficked children, but treatment of adult victims is inconsistent.
Many such cases are handled by the regular courts, though that could change. An anti-trafficking bill currently going through parliament includes a provision for special courts in every district to handle cases speedily.
For now, lawyer Debashish Tandon said victims were still having to run the risk of encountering their alleged traffickers in court.
Tandon, who practises in the eastern city of Kolkata, spent a year building a bond with one young girl trafficked into sex work.
He persuaded her to share details of the abuse she and other victims suffered, including the death of one young girl which she witnessed.
“The victim was my main witness,” said Tandon, who was seeking the death penalty for the trafficker.
“But on the day of her testimony, she saw the accused in the court. She broke down.”
Coming face to face with the defendant “changes everything”, said Tandon, who won the case despite the difficulties. The trafficker was convicted and sentenced to life in jail.
In 2015, India set aside nearly Rs100 billion ($1.45 billion, Dh5.1 billion) to set up additional courts and make existing ones more user-friendly for litigants.
But it is unclear how much of that has so far been spent.
Maharashtra only started spending its funds in 2017. It has used them to redesign some courtrooms and make 12 fast track courts functional.
But it used less than half its annual allocation in 2017, spending only about a third in the following year, and remains a long way off its goal of upgrading 453 court complexes across the state.
“We are quick in creating specific categories of offences in law, but are failing to create matching judicial infrastructure,” said Girja Shankar Bajpai, head of the Centre for Criminology and Victimology at the National Law University.
“Victim blaming, insensitive language by lawyers is still rampant.”
Lawyers say that where changes have been made, the investment has paid off in increased convictions — though again, no up to date national data is available.
In Beed, conviction rates have doubled to about 60 per cent following the court reforms, said Prachi Kulkarni, principal and district judge of Beed court.
“We were the first in Maharashtra to make the changes, second only to Delhi,” said Kulkarni proudly.
It is a striking achievement for an area impoverished by successive poor rains that have forced desperate villagers to walk miles for water and, in many cases, migrate for work.