Is a Four-Year-Old Even Capable of Committing Sexual Assault?


Is a Four-Year-Old Even Capable of Committing Sexual Assault?

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré will tell you that the developmental milestones of a four-year-old child are as follows: They are learning to express their emotions using gestures, noises, and drawing things besides speaking clearly, and learning to write their names. Four is also when playtime is sacrosanct for them; they’re running, hopping, playing catch, and climbing trees and furniture with equal ease. A typical four-year-old is also said to have a greater attention span, can walk up or down the stairs without help, understands instructions, and could be anxious about starting pre-school.

At four years, no child is equipped to use their logical reasoning skills to differentiate the lines they’re not permitted to cross. Their worldview is instead shaped up by what they are told, what they hear, and what they see around them. It’s essentially a time when a child begins the process of learning and understanding — but can we hold them responsible for their actions at this delicate age? For instance, around this time, kids often start lying, or end up mistakenly hurting their friends while playing, actions considered completely normal in their development. Actions, that don’t generally accompany a motive.

But, what happens when that same four-year-old is accused of something as grave as sexual assault? Do the rules still stay the same, or can we label the child a criminal capable of heinous crime? Is the four-year-old even aware of the extent of the hurt his actions have caused?

Yesterday, a news headline accusing a four-and-a-half-year-old boy of sexually assaulting his classmate within the premises of a Delhi school sent shockwaves across the country, with initial reactions ranging from unfettered outrage about the negligence of the school authorities to grief for the victim’s pain. But amid all the noise, there seems to be one question plaguing everyone’s mind: Is a four-year-old even capable of sexual assault?

According to an open letter written by the victim’s mother, the boy had unbuttoned her daughter’s pants, touched her bloomers, put his finger inside to touch her private parts, and kept on hurting her as no one was around. He allegedly also sharpened a pencil and inserted that in as well. In their complaint, the parents of the victim have further alleged that the incident happened both inside the classroom, and a washroom, in the absence of the class teacher and the school ayah.

On their part, the parents worried about their daughter’s safety and appalled at the lackadaisical attitude of the school authorities have demanded that the boy be expelled from the school, besides asking for the sacking of the principal, class teacher, and the school counsellor. Based on their complaint, the police has filed a case of rape against the accused, but are believed to be carefully contemplating their next step, since the minimum age of criminal responsibility stands at seven.

But, what happens when that same four-year-old is accused of something as grave as sexual assault?

Section 82 of the Indian Penal Code states, “Nothing is an offence which is done by a child under seven years of age as he is at such age presumed to be not endowed with a sufficient maturity of understanding to be able to distinguish right from wrong.” This provision also clearly states that the reason anything done by a child under seven years of age is not considered an offence is because it lacks criminal intent. A four-year-old is not capable of comprehending the nature of sexual assault, which, by extension, means it can’t be adjudged as a crime.

Back in 2011, a similar case rocked Wisconsin, when a six-year-old boy was accused of first-degree sexual assault for allegedly playing “doctor” with a five-year-old girl. The victim’s mother had found her in the boy’s yard “with her skirt and underpants around her ankles and the boy sitting underneath her, penetrating her with his finger.” When asked, the girl told her mother that they were playing “butt doctor”. The two were unaware of the nature of the act or its repercussions, something that they considered only play.

At the time, the judge had made a very necessary evaluation: How can we determine that a six-year-old is capable of committing a criminal act, especially when it involves behaviour that experts claim are normal for children that age? As numerous parenting websites on the internet and experts observe, pre-pubescent children being curious about their bodies fall under the purview of healthy childhood sexual behaviour.

Exploring their own bodies and that of others may range from them touching their genitals, or showing it to other same-age children to kissing and holding their hands. In these cases, kids explore their bodies not because they can completely grasp the intricacies of sexual behaviour or the needs of their bodies. They do it because they think it feels good. Studies prove how natural masturbation among kids is, despite parents and psychologists identifying it as a “deeply worrying” problem. Keeping all this in mind, the case against the six-year-old in Wisconsin was eventually dismissed, and he was asked to participate in counselling sessions.

A 2010 study for the Child Abuse Review, that sought to give an insight into why young kids sexually abuse other children confirmed that these acts are, in most cases, either copy-cat behaviour, or a result of being a victim of abuse.

It is yet to be known whether the four-year-old boy accused of sexually assaulting his classmate in Delhi, was merely imitating something he had seen someone else do, or if he is a victim of abuse himself. It’s early days yet and the future of two very young children hangs in the balance, so extreme caution and sensitivity is the need of the hour. Let’s hope the system doesn’t let them down.