ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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When ‘Protectors’ Turn Perpetrators

The state and civil society have failed in their role as protectors of the vulnerable in shelter homes.

In an unequal and patriarchal society, the social, cultural and economic conditions create a situation where vulnerable groups, like women and children, need protection from being victimised by perpetrators with predatory mindsets. However, the welfare state and civil society, who are supposed to take on the role of protectors, have been unable to prevent the victimisation of the vulnerable within their own institutions. The recent incidents of rampant physical and sexual abuse of minors and women in childcare institutions (CCIs) and shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh reveal how the state as well as the civil society have failed in their role as protectors and watchdogs. It is a travesty of justice that their “protectors” themselves turn out to be the perpetrators, time and again. This has happened despite the enactment of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (JJ Act) and the existence of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

Sexual abuse at a CCI in Muzaffarpur, Bihar was exposed by a team from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, which conducted a social audit in 2017. Of the 42 inhabitants of the CCI, 34 minor girls aged between 7 and 17 were found to have been physically and sexually abused. The audit also brought to light physical, sexual and mental abuse in 14 other CCIs in Bihar, and the deplorable living conditions and lack of basic freedoms in these shelter homes. What is disquieting is that seven of the accused in the Muzaffarpur case happened to be women “caregivers” and “counsellors.”

Another case of sexual abuse of minors in Deoria in Uttar Pradesh was revealed when a 10-year-old inhabitant of a CCI managed to escape. She reported to the police the violence and abuse that children were subjected to in the shelter home—from where 18 girls are still reportedly missing—which was reportedly being run without a valid registration.

It is not a dearth of laws, but lack of monitoring and absence of inspection committees that have led to the current predicament. All CCIs are required to be registered under the JJ Act and every district needs to have a child protection officer, a child welfare committee, and a juvenile justice board. However, in practice, their functioning has not been effective enough to prevent the widespread misuse of power and money by those running these institutions. An NCPCR survey has shown that only 32% of CCIs were registered under the JJ Act, while 33% were not registered with any authority. The Ministry of Women and Child Development, which provides funding to CCIs under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, is duty-bound to carry out social audits in order to deter malpractices. However, either these institutions are allowed to function without any routine inspections, or, as in the case of the Muzaffarpur CCI, inspections by multiple state agencies over the years find nothing amiss despite widespread abuse being present.

Although the NCPCR has now been ordered to complete social audits of all CCIs and the state governments have ordered probes, this has come too late for the numerous lives traumatised by their very “protectors.” The probes have led to the discovery of more incidents of abuse, and many more are expected to come to light.

The Supreme Court, while hearing on the Muzaffarpur case, has expressed concern for the safety and welfare of children living in shelter homes. According to the NCPCR survey, there are presently 1,575 survivors of sexual abuse living in CCIs across India. These children have escaped sexual abuse only to fall victim to it again at these shelter homes. While taking punitive action is necessary, often the government’s actions stop at just that, with any effort at alleviating the situation of these children and women and keeping checks on the functioning of shelter homes falling by the wayside once the furore over the issue dies down.

More often than not, children and destitute women who have been victims of violent and manipulative circumstances do not have a say in matters concerning their own welfare, and are at the mercy of those who wield power over them, be it the state and its officials and politicians, or the rest of society. To bring about a transformation in the conditions of vulnerable groups under state protection, it is essential that the primitive and patriarchal mindset—which denigrates fellow human beings as unworthy of dignity and respect while perpetuating and reproducing violence against them—needs to change. More importantly, these vulnerable groups need to be empowered by being treated as fully rights-bearing citizens and facilitated to playing an active role in addressing matters concerning them and their welfare.

The dire state of affairs in these CCIs and shelter homes is such that these minors and destitute women need to be rescued from their “protectors” and from the different forms of abuse and maltreatment. The criminals running these institutions in the guise of protectors need to be weeded out of the systems of social protection and given due punishment, and systematic vetting of those running such shelters needs to be carried out, before basic human rights and a sense of self-worth can be restored among the multitudes condemned to live in these institutions.

Updated On : 28th Aug, 2018

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