Who will save our girls?

On what must be done to protect girls in public spaces

January 30, 2018 03:26 pm | Updated 06:28 pm IST

It’s been only a few weeks into the new year and we can already hang our heads in shame at how terribly we have failed our young girls.

Several brutal crimes against minor girls as young as 10 and 14, many from poor and lower-caste families, have been reported recently. The body of a 15-year-old Dalit girl studying in Class X was found in a village in Haryana’s Jind district — gang-raped, murdered and liver ruptured by an object thrust into her vagina. She had earlier left home for a tuition class. Another 11-year-old Dalit girl was found dead on the outskirts of Panipat district’s Urlana village — forensic evidence showed she was first murdered, then gang-raped by two neighbours. She was abducted while taking garbage to the village garbage dump. Days later, a 50-year-old man was arrested near Pinjore for mutilating the private parts of a 10-year-old girl by inserting a wooden object. The girl was a distant relative and the crime was committed when she was playing outside her house. In Bhayander on the outskirts of Mumbai, a 14-year-old girl on her way to school was stabbed in the abdomen by a man who had stalked her for 18 months.

Going to school, attending tuition class, playing outside the house, disposing off household trash — what should be mundane everyday activities, signifying mundane everyday life for our daughters, now endanger their lives and well-being. What’s shocking is not just how rampant, but also how vicious the assault of young girls is in our country, even when it is perpetuated not by random strangers, but known people, relatives, or neighbours.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, (POCSO), 2012, is a relatively new law that was enacted to curb sexual offences against children. Unfortunately, it can help only after a crime is committed, and then too, its conviction rates are not heartening. In the six district courts of Delhi alone, conviction rates are below 20%. In Bihar, where proportionately fewer cases have been filed under POCSO despite the state having the country’s largest child population, the registered conviction rate was just 3.05% between November 2012 and December 2016. Convictions are low for several reasons, including long-winded court proceedings and the survivor turning hostile, especially when family members are perpetrators.

Still the rising number of filed cases under POCSO shows that these are crimes worth tracking, if only to know where we need to divert our resources and energy. As per the NCRB, 14,913 cases were registered under POCSO in 2015, almost double the number of cases registered the previous year. In addition, 10,854 cases were registered under ‘child rape’ and 8390 cases under ‘assault on girl child with intent to outrage modesty’ that same year.

This should make us all very angry. For after the initial venting, we are more forgiving of perpetrators, and if they manage to escape law/conviction, they can carry on as usual. Rarely do they face social ostracism. But when a girl is assaulted, she is held more accountable than even the perpetrator/s. The incident (or fear of such an incident happening) affects not just her life but of all the girls in her family, community, neighbourhood and village. The everyday lives of all those girls is then increasingly policed. What should be their right to access — school, college, the playground, the well, the field, the street, the city — is increasingly contained and circumscribed.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) – Rural reveals that while the enrolment gap between girls and boys at age 14 shows minimal difference (94.3% enrolment for girls, 95.3% for boys), by the time they are 18, the gap widens considerably (71.6% for boys, 67.4% for girls).

We need to speak up in anger for our girls. Not just to keep them safe from assault, but to also protect their freedom to access the world, despite the fear of potential assault.

Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

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