Violence against women makes news from time to time. We remember Nirbhaya, and chances are we will remember the shocking story of abuse in Bihar’s shelter home. But is that enough? For every one incident that is reported, there must be hundreds that are forgotten and untold.
Women are vulnerable! Gender-based violence is one of the most common human rights violations in the world. Reports from the National Crime Records state that crimes against women in India are rising from one year to another (increasing 34% over four years till 2015). As per NCR data, a woman is raped every six hours in this country. Shocking statistics that bring attention to the fact that women are unsafe, victims of domestic abuse, trafficking, forced prostitution, rape, stalking, dowry related crimes and sexual harassment. It is thus critical for our country to have robust systems to rescue and rehabilitate them. This is where shelters play a key role.
Shelter homes by their very definition are meant to provide a safe haven for women and children in distress. They are often funded by the government and managed by NGOs. They were first set up to protect vulnerable women from trafficking and prostitution under the Immoral Traffic and Prevention Act, 1956. Shelters rescue women and children from violent or unsafe conditions, and give them a permanent or temporary home. Various studies around the world have recognised the crucial role a warm, nurturing shelter can play in helping women cope with physical and emotional trauma and empower them to move on with their lives. But there is a gap between the ideal and the real spaces.
Ideally, a shelter home should provide vocational training to help the victims become financially and socially independent. It is not enough to provide this on paper, there must also be a system to rate the shelters on the basis of rehabilitation efforts, thus encouraging them to provide facilities to empower their residents. There must be a simple, systematic way of assisting them with legal advice, especially in India where going to the courts can be a long and laborious process. Counselling is critical for psychological rehabilitation, and there must be a check on the quality and availability of counsellors. And of course a safe and secure environment - all of it is needed to facilitate recovery, rebuild shattered self esteem and perhaps their life. But is this really being done? There are thousands of shelters across India. Who is checking?
There is a formal system in place - committees are formed at the district level, various government agencies and officers are appointed to keep an eye on the ‘inmates’, monitor the performance of the shelter and decide on funding based on track record. Routine inspections take place from time to time. It usually entails a visit to the premises, questioning the people in charge, checking the facilities, the records, the quality of food, the register of visitors and so on. However this is not enough.
The sordid saga of abuse at Muzaffapur in Bihar, where 34 out of the 42 minor girls at the Muzaffarpur centre were sexually abused, was brought to light because of a social audit conducted by TISS, commissioned by the government of Bihar. For the very first time it was the women and children who were at the centre of the questionnaire. That made all the difference.
Mr. Tarique from TISS, who was instrumental in putting together the report, said: "The focus was on individual experiences, not on the administration or financial aspects of the shelter." That is the key difference between a routine inspection and a social audit.
For example: a regular inspection would check if the water purifier is present at the shelter and put a tick against the box. A social audit would hand an empty bottle and ask one of the children to fill it with drinking water, observing where the child is filling the bottle from. If it is from a regular tap, the box would be crossed. This is just a small example, that needs to be replicated across all parameters.
The small team at TISS worked slowly, taking months to complete the process, visiting 110 institutions across 35 districts in Bihar. They spoke to the girls directly, without the intimidating presence of shelter officials, taking care to build on their trust, ask difficult questions and file their report - a 100 page report that has potentially opened a can of worms. 15 shelter homes in the state have been flagged as the ones with ‘serious concerns’. And this is just in Bihar. There are thousands of shelters in India. Add to that the huge number of unregistered shelter homes, old age homes, shelter for beggars, for the disabled and so on. Imagine if there were more such audits being done for all of them.
Union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi herself admitted the potential scale of the problem saying that she is afraid that there will be ‘many more’ cases as ‘for years and years, we have paid no attention, apart from giving them money’. The horrific expose has prompted the Delhi Commission for Women to set up a committee to do a detailed study of all shelter homes in the capital. Another instance of abuse has come up in Deoria, where over 24 girls were rescued after allegations of sexual exploitation. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has also ordered a through check of all the shelters in Uttar Pradesh. But these are knee jerk reactions to a larger, more endemic problem.
The fact is that there is a total lack of transparency in running these critical institutions. It seems impossible to figure out what is going on given the acute shortage of data on both facilities and the experiences of the residents. And this is despite a checking system in place. Inspections are routinely conducted, complaint boxes are installed, Child Welfare Committees are established and Child Protection Officers are appointed. But does that guarantee things are okay. Probably not. Which is why we need a systemised, mandatory mechanism under an independent social body that can undertake this mammoth exercise. For too long we have ignored the real voices at the shelters and focused on ticking the box for the water purifier. It is perhaps time to ask the right questions to the right people - those who live there.
(Ekta Kumar is a writer, columnist, artist and works closely with the European Union on gender and civil rights related issues. The views expressed are her own.)