In Retrospect

Horrors of shelter homes

As we pace to become an economically-viable nation, we are failing abysmally to protect our citizens, even the most innocent – our children, who are battered, beaten, sexually abused and led to a life of misery.

"You save yourself or you remain unsaved" – this adage by American author Alice Sebold holds true. But, the real question that looms large in India today, particularly after the series of sexual abuse incidents that have come to light in children's shelter homes is: What happens to a girl child when she reaches a place to save herself, but is instead tortured? Is there any place where a girl is truly safe? The questions are blowing in the wind of our country but the answers remain elusive.

On May 31, an audit report by Tata Insititute of Social Sciences (TISS) observed that several girls residing at a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, had complained of sexual abuse. Thereafter, in July, the Women and Child Development Ministry informed that the shelter home had been sealed and 46 minor girls were rescued after the discovery of a sex racket. So far, it has been confirmed that 34 girls between seven and 17 years of age were raped.

This was followed by another case in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh, where a 10-year-old girl escaped a shelter home and exposed the exploitation faced by the girls who lived there.

"The government had information that illegal activities are happening inside the shelter homes, hence, the Bihar government ordered the social audit. The full audit report is still with the government and they have not yet published it. Earlier too, many claims of such activities at shelter homes emerged, but the government did not do anything. If the full report comes out then the ground reality would be known," said a child rights activist from Bihar who requested to maintain anonymity.

When Millennium Post contacted Mohd Tarique, an assistant professor of TISS who headed the social audit team, he denied responding to the findings as the report has also not been officially published.

Building safe havens

According to reports, shelter homes in India are run under the Swadhar Greh scheme, an amalgamation of Short Stay Home scheme and Swadhar scheme, set up by the Department of Social Welfare and Department of Women and Development.

"Some such homes are made by the government, while NGOs also make private homes. The rules and regulations for the homes are mostly the same but under the Juvenile Justice Act, all the private homes should be registered under the government. NGOs cannot run such homes without a license issued by the government," said Swati Maliwal, the Chairperson of Delhi Commission for Women.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, covers children in conflict with the law – defined as someone below 18 years who is alleged or found to have committed an offense – as well as children in need of care and protection.

Detailing the children who seek refuge in such shelters, Maliwal explained that under the law, deserted children and those without any social or economic support, survivors of natural disasters rendered homeless, victims of domestic violence, family tension or discord, trafficked women/girls rescued from brothels or places of exploitation and children affected by HIV/AIDS with no social or economic support are usually inhabitants of these homes.

"Under the Act, a "special home" is an institution set up by the state government or a non-governmental organisation to provide rehabilitative services for children in conflict with the law. For children in need of care and protection, the law prescribes institutions such as open shelters and foster care homes, run by the state government or by non-governmental organisations," observed various media reports.

Flawed management

The child rights activists believe that the management procedure of these shelter homes is entirely flawed. According to the law, there should be social audits of such homes which are rarely conducted. However, after such cases emerged, the Union Government ordered social audits of shelter homes and states too followed suit.

"The social audit system should be continuous and more structured because if the social audit is done at the beginning of one year, by the end of the year the situation may change. Social audits are always welcome but that should be done along with continuous monitoring," said Vidya Reddy of Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing for Child Sexual Abuse.

She added that the governments should not wait or hesitate to close down any shelter homes if found of allowing illegal activities to flourish. In the Deoria shelter home, we have learnt that the government sent many closing notices but the home was not shut down.

"In view of the recent cases, it is clear that the administration and political parties have a direct connection with the shelter homes and all the illegal activities unfolded under the nose of the government. The social audits are avoided because it might expose the nexus. In the Bihar case, we have seen the connection of the Women and Child Development minister's husband which led to her resignation; but CM Nitish Kumar earlier guarded her," said Saira Shah Halim, a political activist.

Reports showed that there are 5,850 registered child care institutions as on date and 1,339 homes that are yet to be registered. However, this data is not complete as there has not been any all-India audit to compile the numbers.

History of abuse

Crime against children at shelter homes is not new and there have been various instances of such cases earlier. "There were 932 cases of abuses and violations registered in child care institutions in 2013-14, reveals the data furnished by the National Commission of Protection of Child Rights. Of these, 532 cases were registered in Uttar Pradesh alone," a media report quoted the data presented to the Parliament in the 2014 monsoon session by Maneka Gandhi, the Women and Child Development Minister.

"The cases that the NCPCR furnished included instances of child labour, missing children, sexual abuse, and displaced children, among other heads. In 2013-14, there was a total of 192 registered cases of abuse and 71 in 2014 alone. Apart from that, there were 481 registered cases against the girl child in 2013-14, and 54 cases in 2014 alone," the report further noted.

If the data is compared with the all India records of crime against children, then the significant rise in such crimes would be noted. According to the National Crime Record Bureau data of 2014, the total reported crime against children were 8,9423 which became 9,4172 in 2015 followed by 10,6958 in 2016. The NCRB report also noted that in 2016 itself there were nearly 1,9765 cases of child rape, 1,2226 cases of child sexual assault and 934 incidents of sexual harassment.

"It is unfortunate that despite such high number of child sexual abuse cases in India, the government has done very little. The girls who come to these homes are from vulnerable sections and they come to get protection. But the reality has turned out to be different and the people supposed to protect these kids themselves abuse them," added Saira Shah Halim.

Karjat shelter home: A study

Among many other cases in the past, the Karjat shelter case from Maharashtra would be an important case to recall. An NGO on May 2014 alleged that the children in this home, aged between five years and 18 years, were being sexually abused.

"The children, activists alleged, were made to watch pornography and perform sexual acts on each other. In more horrific details, they also told the police that the children were forced to eat human feces when they were hungry. All of this was also allegedly filmed by an accused," noted media reports. The home, according to the report, housed close to 30 children. An inquiry has been launched after the accused were arrested and remanded to police custody.

At a time when India's growing economic prowess is being globally discussed, with digitisation at the crux of all deliberations – we are still failing to provide basic safety to the most innocent in our society, our children. From Delhi to Kashmir to Muzaffarpur, every minute India reports the rape of a woman and yet, little is done to prevent such atrocities. With each such incident, the country fails to answer one simple question: Is there any place where a girl is truly safe?

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