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CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Goa courtroom with pink walls, colouring books and no witness box has created a vital space for trafficked and exploited children to testify without fear, ensuring more convictions of their abusers, say jurists.
Now the success of the child-friendly court model in the western Indian state is spurring the introduction of similar rooms in courts across the country, adding to those in capital New Delhi and the southern state of Telangana.
"Children testify if they are given time and space," said Vandana Tendulkar, judge of the Goa Children's Court, the first to be set up in India more than a decade ago.
"There are no black robes allowed in my court and even the policemen cannot enter in uniform," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that children's testimony is the strongest evidence for conviction.
Government data showed 43 percent of the 9,127 trafficking victims in India in 2015 were below the age of 18.
But many cases did not end in convictions due to witness intimidation, or did not even reach court, say activists.
In 2015, 14,913 cases were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, from 8,904 in 2014. These included minors forced into the sex trade or kept as slaves.
Out of 406 completed trial cases in 2014, there were convictions in only 100 cases, data shows.
Activists say the number of overall cases could be much higher because many victims, especially those from poor and rural backgrounds, remain unaware of the crime.
In the children's courts special judges ensure victims do not see the accused, depositions are done without delay, translators are present in cross-border cases and measures are taken to guard against intimidation by defense lawyers.
The states of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are now among the states looking to open similar courts in many districts in the next two years. Karnataka is likely to open a child-friendly court by the end of this year.
Law students are roped in to "talk and play" with the child, prepare them for the courtroom, inform them of their rights and support them throughout proceedings.
Activists appointed as legal aid officers also discuss what the children are entitled to, what a trial involves and why testimony is important. Counselling is also often provided.
"The big concern has always been that people are either not filing complaints or the victim turns hostile in court," said Emidio Pinho of non-profit Stop Child Abuse Now.
"Either way, the accused are getting away."
So the grey landscape of India's courts is slowly getting a makeover to ensure children get justice.
Tendulkar said the premise is very simple. "Judges have to almost think like a child to be able to get to the bottom of these cases," she said. "When I make a 6-year-old victim of abuse sit next to me and depose, she feels reassured."
Many judges are now armed with crayons and colouring books to help children "settle down" in court.
The judge added that the law gives her the powers to protect the child from cross-examination and threats from the accused.
"The special court gives the child space to be fearless and a better shot at justice," she said.
Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ed Upright; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org