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Muzaffarpur casts a shadow over shelter homes

A NARROW STREET IN the back lanes of Old Delhi leads to a 19th century two-storey structure with an iron gate. A woman who unlocks it keeps a register to record visitors to this shelter home for girls. On the first floor, in two large dormitories with pink walls which have teddy bears of various sizes hanging on them, wooden lockers and old fireplaces, some girls have just returned from school. As I settle down on the floor on a neat mat, some 16 to 17-year-olds wearing jeans and T-shirts gather around. Some remember their past, others have forgotten. Puja (name changed) does not recall the name of her village in Uttar Pradesh from where she ran away at seven. Life has moved on. She attends Shiamak Davar’s dance classes. “I want to become a dancer,” she says. Asifa, a ragpicker living on the street with her mother before she was brought to the home at seven, wants to be an engineer. Neena, an orphan, aspires to be a nurse and Safeena, a chef.

They talk proudly about how one of them, Lilima Khan, has become a successful chef and is now working with a high-end restaurant in South Delhi. Differently-abled Puja Raju, who at 15 had won a gold for relay race and two silvers for 100 and 200 metre sprints in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games at Los Angeles, holds a hot water bag to get relief from a stomach ache. Wary of getting beaten up by her father, she had left her village in Etawah and took a train to Delhi when she was seven. After winning the medals she wanted to return home to show them to her parents, but she was clueless about the address. Most of the girls have learnt karate at the shelter home. “We have not had to use it yet,” they laugh. The conversation turns to Bollywood. They liked the Alia Bhatt-starrer Raazi, a film revolving around the life of an Indian spy. The girls prefer to watch movies at PVR theatres, or else, download them using a pen drive.

Rashmi, who has been working at one of the NGO-run shelter homes in Delhi, says the children, either orphans, abandoned, missing or on the streets, are sent through the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). “Some of the street children have faced sexual abuse before coming here. One of the girls had run away from home when she was seven because of sexual assault. She recognised her assaulter in court and won the case,” says Nahid Khan, a counsellor at the home, which shelters around 100 girls, cutting across religious lines.

As I bid farewell, a girl shouts, “Have lunch and go. The food is good here.” The gates are locked behind me, a rule the CWC insists upon. A faded plaque on the structure reads: ‘NCC Department: Built in the 1890s, this building is popularly known as Sultan Singh’s Residence. Sultan Singh’s grandson General Virendra Singh was one of the founders of the National Cadet Corps in India.’ I leave wondering if the girls have heard the stories about the Muzaffarpur shelter home in Bihar.

“Muzaffarpur was an aberration but it is also an eye-opener which should lead to extensive overhauling of the system. We are now working on that. What safeguards can we have if protectors turn predators?” asks Atul Prasad, Bihar Principal Secretary, Social Welfare Department. It was at a meeting with Mohammad Tarique, Director, Koshish-TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), last June that Prasad had proposed an audit of 110 state-run or state-funded institutions across Bihar. At that time, neither of them had expected a sex racket like the Muzaffarpur case to come out of the findings.

According to Tarique, conditions like bad food, poor sanitation, restrictions and violence are common in such institutions and did not come as a surprise. “But the extent of abuse in the Muzaffarpur one was disturbing. After those revelations, the natural expectation was that other states will start checking conditions in shelter homes. This is the least that could have been done,” he says. The initiative to audit the shelter homes had led to revelations of sexual abuse of girls—34 of the 42 inmates had been drugged and raped—at the state government-sponsored Balika Griha, run by Brajesh Thakur, a local tyrant.

“Muzaffarpur was an aberration but it is also an eye-opener which should lead to extensive overhauling of the system” - Atul Prasad, principal secretary, social welfare department, Bihar

Prasad, an IIT Kanpur graduate from the1987 IAS batch, says he wanted to know the ground realities in shelter homes, often inspected by flying squads. “I wanted a third party to do it so it would be impartial and a credible report. The idea was to do a rating of the NGOs and sanction projects accordingly.” He had told Tarique that he had no budget, except for handling logistics like transport. Tarique however agreed and a year later, he met Prasad with the report which showed sexual abuse in three shelter homes, issues of grave concern in 15 and excellent track record in seven, where innovative measures were undertaken. Two weeks later, district officials from across the state were called to Patna for a meeting. “In criminal cases, my main concern was safety of the children. Till then, we didn’t know who all were involved. Before lodging the FIR, we shifted the children. This was a good strategy,” says Tarique. Only later did collusion of some officials, members of the CWC who were the custodians of these homes and NGOs, some of whom were involved in shifting the children, surface. They were all hand-in- glove in the sex racket at the Muzaffarpur shelter home. The report was just the tip of the iceberg.

When the truth started unravelling, Prasad realised that it would bring the entire country to its toes. He was happy that he could save the children from further assault and most of the culprits were behind bars. He now wants the Action Taken Report (ATR), which is ready, to be vetted by TISS. Both Tarique and Prasad expected that the fallout of the Muzaffarpur findings would be that other states also get audits done of their shelter homes. The connivance of local authorities and NGOs had come out later. “We wait for a tragedy. Everyone speaks, writes, debates, politicises but no proactive step is taken to check such happenings in future. Why do you have to wait for the courts to step in? Why does one have to wait for a child to escape from a shelter home in Uttar Pradesh to tell her story?” asks Tarique. After details of the Bihar audit came out, the national media focused on it, the country squirmed, the political blame game played out, the courts took cognisance, but the silence in the aftermath was deafening. At the end of the day, everybody tried to wash their hands off one of the most disturbing acts of violence in recent times.

The Supreme Court, in mid-August, expressed concern about the welfare of children living in shelter homes, citing that 1,575 minors, including 286 boys, were victims of sexual abuse, as per a study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development from 2015 to March last year. The Centre had conveyed to the court that social audit of childcare institutions conducted by the ministry in 678 districts showed that 9,589 children were residing in these homes. “The social audit of such institutions is being done as per the directions of the Supreme Court,” says Stuti Narain Kacker, who heads the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). Though there are no definite figures of the number of such institutions across the country, the NCPCR has a rough estimate of around 7,000.

“We wait for a tragedy... Why does one have to wait for a child to escape from a shelter home in Uttar Pradesh to tell her story?” - Mohammad Tarique, director, Koshish-TISS

On August 28th, the NCPCR told a Supreme Court bench that of the 2,874 children’s home studied till then, only 54 have received positive reviews from all six committees and of the 185 shelter homes audited, only 19 have all 14 records of a child they are supposed to maintain.

Meanwhile, the Delhi Social Welfare Department has approached TISS for the possibility of an audit and the Chhattisgarh government had a round of preliminary discussions on it. It is not known if some states are doing it through local organisations.

Activists working in the field advocate more transparency in the running of shelter homes. Author, activist and academic Harsh Mander fears that the fallout of the Muzaffarpur findings would be that state governments make shelter homes more custodial. “That’s not the answer. If you take away the freedom of the residents, these things are bound to happen. A child becomes like a prisoner... children’s homes should be open, friendly, welcoming places of love,” says Mander, who is closely associated with Kilkari Rainbow Home in Old Delhi.

Once the girls in the childcare institution turn 18, they are moved to the women’s shelter home. On a sultry afternoon, four girls, all in 12th standard, laze after lunch, in their small room with three computers, a refrigerator, table, cooler and trunk at an Old Delhi shelter home. “Is she going to teach us English?” one of them asks Amreen Farooq, coordinator at the home. Sona wants to be an artist. Chanda says she wants to join the IAS. She says they get some pocket money from their sponsors so they can buy things they need. But the purple nail polish on her fingers is her friend’s. She does not like spending on such “banalities”. Arti wants to become a chartered accountant and Manju, a teacher.

Outside their little world of aspirations, life in the sprawling halls lined with hospital beds in the women’s shelter home is a struggle between despair and survival. Hopelessness has brought these women to this refuge. A chart in the office mentions 23 patients (the home also takes in mentally-challenged cases), eight livelihood cases and 16 “unnati” girls, who have been transferred from children’s homes. According to Geetanjali, a project manager, the home, which opened in 2016, gets a funding of Rs 40,000 a month from the state government.

Sitting against a desolate tiled wall, on which the women have put up colourful paper decorations, 21-year-old Shaheen (name changed) feeds her two infants from her plate of rice and daal. A victim of domestic violence, she had left home and was found begging at Jama Masjid. Aisha, also forced to leave her home in Katihar in Bihar because of her violent husband, came all the way to Delhi to get her daughter treated for tuberculosis. She is waiting to get her certificate after a 75- day training as a childcare worker. Huma left her abusive husband at Mirzapur and reached Delhi with her two children. A highly qualified woman, who refuses to be identified by her own name or a fictitious one, landed at the shelter because she has no job or money to pay rent. “For me it’s always been a shelter—first in my father’s home, then in hostels, rented houses and now this.... It’s nice here. There is an amphitheatre at the back,” she says in fluent English. But, amidst the inmates, mostly of less educated women from impoverished backgrounds, she is a loner.

“A fallout of the Muzaffarpur findings could prod state governments to make shelter homes more custodial instead of welcoming places of love” - Harsh Mander, author, activist, academic

“Homeless women are vulnerable because they are desolate and unlike others, do not have families to back them. Women living on the streets develop their own defences to fend off sexual abuse,” says Amreen.

Tarique observes that it is only when the media reports sexual violence that attention is drawn to the problem. “We see young girls begging on the streets. Why do these people remain invisible to us?” For him, the lessons from the Muzaffarpur findings include making social audits compulsory for all institutions by an independent agency, regular monitoring processes with participation of residents, criteria for grading organisations by the rate of rehabilitation and not financial or administrative capacity, perspective-building inputs for staff and guiding principles based on a set of values like dignity, compassion and freedom for all institutions. Tarique points out that few institutions have adopted certain innovative solutions. The recommendations of the 100-page report, brought out by Koshish-TISS, include structured and regular interactions between concerned organisations for faster and effective rehabilitation and institutions taking a proactive role in tracing the families of children, besides the formal procedure.

That a refuge for women could turn into a place of exploitation was pointed out in a report released last year on state- run and funded shelter homes for girls, women and other vulnerable populations by Lam-Iynti Chittara Nerallu, a national network working towards improved and expanded shelter services for women. ‘Many a time, it is the staff or caregivers at shelter homes who are involved in crimes against its residents. Although women with disabilities face multiple challenges of utilities and buildings, they are also most vulnerable to sexual violence,’ it said. The report also said that since NGOs depend on the government for funds, they find it difficult to sustain shelter homes without a secured stream of support.

Prasad says apart from expenses on infrastructure, staff salaries and NGOs, the Bihar government gives Rs 2,000 a month for every child. He hopes that the Muzaffarpur shelter home story will not be repeated in the country. “I hope it has alerted everyone. At least I can have that satisfaction.”

Shakti Shalini, a Delhi-based women’s shelter home, was founded in 1987 as a legal aid centre for dowry-related violence by, among others, two women whose daughters were murdered for dowry— Satyarani Chaddha and Shahjehan Apa. According to the Lam-Iynti Chittara Nerallu Report, Shakti Shalini’s shelter has been the mainstay for women’s rights NGOs as well as government bodies in Delhi who refer women to them, but its limited flow of funds has affected the regular running of the centre.

Attempts to reach out to Shakti Shalini failed. A landline phone number and an address pop up when one browses for the shelter home. A woman’s voice on the other side says it was just the office and the location of the institution could not be disclosed. At the office in the heart of the Capital, an elderly woman asks why Open wanted to write about shelter homes. “Please write a mail about what information you want and what methods you will use and we will get back to you in a week’s time, maybe,” she says. The woman says she will have to first ask the inmates if they are ready to talk and that may take time.

While Tarique understands the hesitation of the shelter home to be in the media glare, he favours that the institutions be made more open and accessible. So does Mander. “Closed institutions, whether for children, women, survivors of violence or persons with disabilities, should go into history. Comprehensive care has to be offered but it should not become custodial, opaque and jail-like,” says Mander.

According to the Centre, 32 per cent of the childcare institutions were registered under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act while 33 per cent were unregistered. It also conveyed to the Apex Court that as per the audit report, 8,744 homes were managed by NGOs and private individuals while there were 845 government-supported homes. The Centre, which provides much of the funds under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, has a supervisory role over the working of these institutions. Beside childcare institutions, children also reside in women’s shelter homes provided they are accompanied by their mother.

The stories that have led women to shelter homes are harrowing, some familiar and others bone-chilling. In the heart of Delhi, in one of the city’s 200 rain baseras (night shelters), where residents are free to move in and out unlike in institutionalised shelter homes, around ten girls rehearse a dance to the tune of a patriotic song. Along a wall of the long room lined with windows are 13 bunk beds. On one end of the hall are metal lockers and on the other, two big trunks. The music, the coolers, the chatter drown the sighs of destitution, rejection and broken hearts.

The music stops. The girls stop dancing. Twelve-year-old Ruksar, wearing a turquoise dupatta and golden danglers, looks up and smiles. A seventh standard student, she has known life only in this shelter home, now located near the Nizamuddin dargah in the Capital. Her mother, who had brought her there along with her five siblings after her father married again, had gone to cut grass. Sekwara, 28, was four when her father left their hometown in Myanmar and came to India. Married at 17, she and her three children became homeless after her husband was imprisoned following a fight. Susheelamma, 60, the oldest inhabitant of the home, was thrown out by her in-laws after her husband died in 1998. Sameena, 28, faced sexual abuse from her stepson. Nobody complains about life in the rain basera, where the gates close at midnight. In the day, some go to the dargah to beg and some work as domestic helps in houses nearby. Have they heard the Muzaffarpur shelter home story? I wonder again as I leave. The music restarts.