The most shocking thing about the recent revelations of sexual abuse at state-funded shelter homes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is that no lessons have been learnt. The inside story of these homes of horrors, grabbing headlines now, is part of the long catalogue of savageries on powerless children in institutions tasked to care for them. It has happened before, and it will happen again, unless we wake up.
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are under attack. But make no mistake. Such savage assaults on children who have no one to speak for them aren’t confined to just these two states. Such cases have happened elsewhere, including Delhi. A few years ago, a post-mortem examination on an 11-year-old girl who died of vomiting and diarrhoea in a Delhi home showed she had been repeatedly sexually abused.
The latest cases prove once again that power, politics and abuse go hand in hand.
There are around 9,000 government-run childcare institutions and shelter homes for women/girls across India. In many cases, the Centre provides over half the money to run them; the state governments fork out the rest. Typically, NGOs selected by the government are tasked to run these institutions. Then there are shelters supported solely by state governments, like those now in the news. Usually, they are also run by NGOs.
How do these government-supported shelters become dens of physical, mental and sexual abuse of vulnerable children?
Anyone who has been following the skeletons tumbling out of these institutions would have gathered some basic facts — NGOs which run these institutions typically have strong backing of politicians. Though there are several levels of checks and balances on paper, in practice there is little oversight in most cases.
Everybody knows this, but it’s brushed aside as most children in these shelters are from poor families and perceived to be readymade for abuse. While many children are orphans, many others are from families too poor to look after them.
These children don’t make up a votebank, so no one bothers. It’s only when a child runs away and blows the lid or dies, does the news break out. State agencies typically do little even when there are hints of abuses as they know the abusers have powerful backers. The Bihar government had asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to do an audit of the short-stay and shelter homes in August 2017. The TISS report red-flagged nearly 20 short-stay homes and shelters.
The question remains: how do NGOs without any proven credentials on child protection and child rights get funds to run shelters for children?
As Union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi acknowledged: “There is hardly any monitoring by state agencies. I won’t be surprised if more cases like Muzaffarpur and Deoria come out.” The minister has ordered an investigation into the state of affairs in 9,000-odd such shelters across the country. That is welcome. If the exercise is carried out honestly and efficiently, be prepared for more skeletons tumbling out of more cupboards.
Ms Gandhi’s other proposed solution, of creating one large shelter directly under each state government’s control, may not solve the problem as the core issue is accountability. And the State has been found wanting on that score.
In the Deoria and Muzaffarpur shelters, we see bureaucratic complicity and dereliction of duty at several levels. The State cannot simply pass the buck to the predatory NGOs which it supported for so long.
That Opposition parties will attack the government on this is predictable. But the culture of impunity isn’t confined to any one state or political party, as Enakshi Ganguly, well-known child rights activist and co-founder of Haq: Centre for Child Rights, points out.
In one case of a children’s shelter just outside New Delhi, the National Council for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) had flagged detailed allegations of sexual, physical and psychological abuse of children by the staff of the home. That shelter was forced to close. The owner was arrested. But clearly, that has not been a deterrent to other predators managing child care institutions.
India has enough laws and policies to address the sexual abuse of children. But till date, both the Central and state governments have failed to enforce the laws and safeguards, leaving children, especially those in shelters, extremely vulnerable to abuse. Mere hand-wringing will not do. The kind of social audit that Ms Gandhi has ordered must be done regularly, in order to keep both the authorities and NGOs on their toes. In Deoria, the police kept sending children to the shelter even after it was blacklisted. This type of contempt for the law should be addressed very firmly.
Many things can be done. As Ms Ganguly points out, why not have regular visits to these homes by academics and child rights activists? Regular visits reveal tell-tale signs of abuse, she says. The NCPCR should be financially supported to monitor the effective implementation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
Another key measure should be to expand the pool of paediatricians and gynaecologists who are trained to recognise and tackle sexual abuse of children.
Child rights commissions in states must make sure that there is proper vetting of all staff members in residential care facilities, including guards and cleaners.
Once again, whatever action is being taken is being led by the judiciary. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court, while hearing a petition on the Muzaffarpur shelter home rape cases, criticised both the Centre and the Bihar government; the Patna high court decided to monitor the investigation into the alleged rape of 34 minor girls in the shelter home. After that, the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh has sought a CBI probe into the Deoria case and a special investigation team (SIT) to ensure there is no tampering of evidence. The fact that such a team is deemed necessary speaks volumes.
It’s worth remembering that this flurry of activity comes after prolonged somnolence and little is likely to change in the long run, unless early alerts are recognised and acted upon immediately.