And, they all fall down

The recent case of rape of a 13-year-old and her forced entry into prostitution is a grim reminder of how the state and society failed her, at every level, though laws and schemes to help and rehabilitate children in distress are aplenty

Published - December 27, 2020 11:48 am IST

Illustration: The Hindu

Illustration: The Hindu

There are several laws in the land, apart from welfare schemes, aimed at providing a safety net for children of the country, so that they enjoy their childhood and are given fair opportunities not only to survive but also to thrive. There are multiple schemes for the welfare of girl children; yet, from time to time, we are shocked by cases of children who slip through the cracks so easily, as if there were no safety net at all. Their very sordid stories, however, are enough to jerk us out of complacence, to notice the lapses and urge a fail-safe method for the outreach of such protection mechanisms, especially for the truly vulnerable.

The recent story of the 13-year-old girl who was raped multiple times and forced into prostitution by her own relatives at Washermanpet in north Chennai is an indicator of how things can go wrong at several levels and the complete failure of the system to rescue a child, though interventions could have been made at various levels. What she went on to suffer, as a result of such failures, is enough to make one’s blood turn cold. Though the Washermanpet all woman police station personnel have managed to arrest 20 persons for the sexual abuse of the child, including the functionary of a political party, a police inspector and a media person and doctors, besides the pimp, the trauma she has been put through could indeed have been entirely avoided, had the systems kicked in.

Banu (named changed) used to live in Red Hills, in a large family, with six other siblings. Her father abandoned the family, and the mother did odd jobs, and sometimes got food from mosques to keep her family afloat. In a story that has often been told in this country, when Banu hit puberty, her mother did the only thing she could think of: she stopped her rather bright daughter from going to school, fearing for her safety.

In Standard V, when she was about 10 years, though smart and good at studies, she had to drop out of school and help out with the household chores, and take care of the infant in the house. “It is due to the family’s condition that the girl had to discontinue the education. Actually she wants to become a Montessori teacher. She is very caring and nurturing, and even in the home, where we have rehabilitated her, she shares everything she gets with other children,” says a police source.

Notably, it does not appear that anyone then investigated why she had dropped out, no hand of the state reached out to her family, though there are several schemes to target this very group of children and integrate them back into the education mainstream. While facilities do exist to provide shelter and guidance for children in distress, neither Banu nor her family had any knowledge of them.

The family also moved to a sea-side village off the East Coast Road, and Banu’s mother sent her off to help out in her sister’s place at Sriperumbudur. But, in September, she got passed on to a cousin, Shahida, who wanted her to take care of her two little children. Anyone who had spotted this child taking care of two other children could have called ChildLine 1098 to complain of exploitation, but that did not happen either.

As a result, it was at Shahida’s house that the full horrors of what happened to Banu began, and in retrospect, after investigation, with the older woman’s co-operation.

The police say Shahida’s partner Madan first raped Banu “to break her in.” She was 13, but rather petite, and could easily be mistaken for an eight- or nine-year- old girl, they added. Madan is apparently known as a pimp locally, and his family, including his sister and mother, facilitated his business. “Madan then took her to the house of the BJP functionary where she was raped, and later C. Pugalendhi, 46, Inspector (Law & Order), Ennore, also sexually abused her in the same house. She was sent to houses across the city, where she was sexually abused repeatedly,” a police officer outlines.

Banu was abused right through September and October and despite her mother repeatedly requesting Shahida to send her home, Madan did not allow it. “They were making a lot of money and did not want to lose out on it by letting her go. Finally fearing that the girl’s mother may grow suspicious and go to the police, they sent her home. After the girl narrated everything to her mother when she went home, a police complaint was filed in November,” a police source says. The investigation peeled off layers of horror stories, as the child was able to recount, with clarity, the specific details of those who had abused her.

20 arrests and counting

The personnel of the wing for prevention of crime against women and children say they have arrested 20 persons. “Out of them, 12 are abusers and the remaining are pimps. This is the first time such a large number of pimps, involved in a case, are also being arrested. Hopefully, this will send out a strong message to everyone that child abuse can attract stringent punishment,” says a police officer.

The officer insists that right from the day the case was taken up, investigation was conducted systematically, using the proper scientific methods. “We made a flowchart based on the information given by the girl. She is a very smart kid and remembers each person and is able to recollect a particular trait of the abuser,” adds the officer.

The police identified the location of the accused, including the abusers and the pimps, and links with the victim and then made arrests. “We confirmed it twice and then went ahead to nab them,” the officer explains.

However, activists have wondered about the case not getting sufficient attention, even compared to the Ayanavaram case in which in a 11-year-old hearing impaired girl was raped by service staff in her apartment complex. That case remained in public discourse and on the headlines for a long while. Some activists raised suspicions about whether there was an undue influence exerted, given the involvement of politicians, policemen and even a mediaperson, and because the victim was poor. “The profile of every accused is different. There is no political pressure in the case whatsoever. Had it been so, could we have arrested so many people? We will be making more arrests,” says an officer.

The officer says that unlike the Ayanavaram case, in this incident, the relatives themselves pushed her into flesh trade and she was abused in different houses across the city, not in one house identified as a place where sex could be bought. “Now we are going deep into every POCSO case and arresting all those involved. This was not done earlier. We wish to create a fear in the minds of people who even think of committing such a crime. We feel that society should also play a role in preventing child sexual abuse by alerting the police if they find something amiss,” the police officer explains.

Another senior police officer adds that the relative anonymity of the case is actually a good thing. “It would be better if the case does not get much political or media attention. The victim undergoes a lot of trauma. The victim in the Ayanavaram incident has left the State owing to the exposure given to the case. We have so far rehabilitated Banu and her family too,” said the officer.

Failure of society

Andrew Sesuraj M, professor, Loyola Knowledge Hub for Excellence in Child Protection, says there has been a systemic failure in this case, starting from the point of school education. “The village-level and ward-level child protection committees should have tracked the drop-outs. If they find that the child’s parents are incapacitated, the child should be produced before the Child Welfare Committee and sent to children’s homes where it can be provided shelter and education,” he points out.

He says the state has the responsibility to take care of such children as India ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on December 11, 1992 . “It is clear that the child protection committees are not functioning properly. Had they been functioning optimally, the child would not have slipped past,” he says.

He adds that though school drop-outs have reduced drastically in the State and many of them have been brought back to school, more needs to be done. “The girl should also have been benefited by the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls — SABLA, but somehow, even that did not happen.”

Communities too have a role

Sherin Bosco, founder of Nakshtra Rape Crisis Centre, says the role of schools and neighbourhood initiatives to prevent child sexual abuse and ensure protection cannot be neglected. “It is very unfortunate that child sexual abuse prevention programmes widely focus on developing and disseminating interventions that target parents, especially mothers. It is high time that community-based stakeholders and local residents are targeted in creating awareness of the issue of child sexual abuse,” she says.

Ms. Bosco underlines the need for law enforcement agencies and local NGOs to work closely with communities and identify community volunteers who can keep an eye on vulnerable children and especially those girls who are school drop-outs.

She says it is important to train these volunteers to identify children who are at risk of being sexually violated and develop reporting mechanisms in suspected cases of child sexual abuse. In many cases in which girl children drop out of school, there is no follow-up by the schools. “In this very case, if the school teacher had made any attempt to monitor the child’s well-being, the child could have been protected or at least rescued before it was too late,” she added.

The road ahead

“Unsafe child abandonment is illegal and puts children’s lives at risk. You can seek support to raise the child or legally surrender the child for adoption through the Child Welfare Committee. To find the nearest child welfare committee, call ChildLine at 1098,” says Meera Marthi, co-founder and director, Where are India’s Children, an NGO that works to ensure that abandoned and orphaned children are accounted for.

Activists have called for a speedy investigation and trial of the case and for the State to ensure that no one who is culpable is allowed to go scot free. But beyond that, it is time to re-emphasise the role of the state and society in protecting its children, to keep them in a safe embrace, but certainly to pick them up if they fall off the grid.

( ChildLine operates a toll-free helpline — 1098 — for children in distress across the country )

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