ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Redefining the Purpose and Rules of Shelters

Prita Jha ( is a legal activist, researcher and trainer, and co-editor of the book On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, Examining the Record, with Surabhi Chopra.

There are no easy short-term solutions to the abysmal functioning of shelter homes for women and children in India. But regular social audits are a vital starting point and should be part of every state’s monitoring and awareness raising mechanism. The information now available on the number, location, who can access shelters and what facilities exist at each one, should be available in one place to facilitate action. Also, the purpose behind setting up these shelter homes should be examined and redefined.

Certain parts of this article appeared in an essay in dated 13 January 2017.


The exposure of the sordid and tragic sexual exploitation of the inmates in the Muzaffarpur shelter of Bihar and the media coverage along with the Supreme Court’s intervention, will hopefully be historic turning points in the story of Indian shelters for the most vulnerable, socially ostracised, abandoned men, women and children.

The audit report by members of the Koshish project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on the Muzaffarpur shelter is in the public domain and marks an extremely important milestone for all those working with actual or prospective shelter users. There are no easy short-term solutions that any audit and analysis can fix, but such social audits are a vital starting point and should be part of every state’s monitoring and awareness raising mechanism. The information now available on the number, location, who can access shelters and what facilities exist at each shelter should be available in one place that those who may want to use or those who are trying to assist can access easily. This is an absolute minimum that is not available in most states.

I am limiting my comments here to the two types of shelters I have some experience of referring survivors to in Gujarat. 

Activists and others working in the field of women and child rights are aware of the day-to-day human rights violations that take place in shelters run either by the government or the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There are no annual reports or any other 
kind of information that is publicly available. Social audit reports of the kind carried out by TISS should be done for all states, so that all stakeholders have at least basic information about each shelter institution. However, this is no easy task as demonstrated by the TISS report. There are 110 institutions in nine divisions across 35 districts of 
Bihar and six different schemes and two departments under whose jurisdiction these homes are, namely the Department of Social Welfare and Department of Social Security.

The following five problems are among those that TISS reported as being general across these institutions in Bihar:

(i) Insufficient staff and critical posts were vacant.

(ii) Insufficient and inappropriate infrastructure in most institutions like good ventilation, hygiene conditions, access to open spaces for recreation were missing from most institutions.

(iii) Lack of recreational activities and vocational training in most institutions.

(iv) Evidence of rampant institutional abuse of various kinds ranging from neglect, harassment, physical assaults to sexual abuse.

(v) A large number of the residents, including children, were found to be living with several forms of mental illnesses.

In Gujarat, we asked the high court to intervene when allegations of child sexual abuse appeared in local newspapers in relation to a children’s shelter in the state and from where the children thus affected had fled. Our petition asked for an inspection committee to look into the matter. The court did not entertain our application about allowing NGOs to be involved but asked two trial court judges to report on this issue. They reported that whilst the child sexual abuse allegations were not supported by those they spoke to, the children were not at all happy and the atmosphere was one of a custodial setting where they were confined to the living room for most of the day. Whilst, it should be noted and appreciated that there are shelters where residents feel secure, sadly this is very much the exception rather than the norm. The norm is that children live in these spaces in extremely inhuman, unhygienic and emotionally unhealthy environments. So, despite the clear statutory mandate for a range of good quality shelters under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 which specifies the rehabilitative/reintegrative purpose of shelters, we do not have a national-level document specifying whether such shelters exist in all districts as required by law and their quality and compliance with the purpose for which they were established.

As per the law, these shelters are required to be provided separately for boys and girls and further, separate accommodation is required for children in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection. Thus, each district must have at least four shelters: one for boys who are in conflict with law, one for girls who are in conflict with law and another for boys in need of care and protection and another for girls in need of care and protection. There is no data available district-wise at the national level as to what the 
status of provision in every district is. This is not the reality in many parts of the country. For example, the Barpeta district of Assam with one of the highest numbers of trafficking offences does not have a girls’ shelter. The Child Welfare Committee is forced to send the girls 
to the Guwahati shelter, which is often overcrowded. 

The women’s shelter in Gujarat will illustrate the condition of women’s shelters. The Peace and Equality Cell’s (PEC) experience of working on the issue of shelters and the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) legislation and Protection of Children from Sexual Offe­nces (POCSO) Act for the last six years totally echoes the problems outlined by the TISS report. I say this from the perspective of being involved in a petition filed by the PEC (WPPIL 321 of 2014) in Gujarat, which challenged the severe violation of human rights of women living in the main government shelter in Ahmedabad. Media reports outlined not just the horrific, unhygienic conditions but also the prison-like conditions that led to nine residents escaping from the shelter one midnight.

Shelters for Adult Women

The key piece of evidence in the public interest litigation (PIL) was the affidavit of a previous resident, Preyatna (name changed) who spoke about her year-long experiences at the shelter. There were other inmates who had escaped horrific domestic conditions to stay in the shelter. So, imagine our shock and disbelief, when the day after Anita entered the shelter, she contacted us saying she would rather go back and die than live in this shelter! She, like many survivors, was shocked and traumatised by the living conditions at the shelters which are presumably meant for recovery and healing.

It is important to consider how many shelters were actually set up for the purpose of healing, recovery and empowerment of the residents and whether the staff understands this purpose and acts in accordance with it.

Government shelters in Gujarat, and I would venture to say all over India, are places where the society’s rejected, violated and those without family support are all lumped together because they have nowhere else to go. The state is (reluctantly) compelled to provide physical space, food and water for their existence. It is a highly judgmental, moralistic and punitive space where there is little respect for the resident’s privacy. The painful facts of their lives and stories of abandonment by family and community are shared widely with everyone in the shelter. Often, the women are labelled as “paagal” (mad) or “lovewalis” (those who fell in love with someone their family did not approve of).

The chasm between warm, nurturing safe spaces and the lived real spaces inside these shelters could not be greater. Preyatna who had literally run away to save her life after living with years 
of physical violence and psychological warfare from her violent, alcoholic partner was shocked beyond belief by the dirty, unhygienic conditions inside the women’s shelter in Ahmedabad. She would recall years after leaving that the shelter was a punishing and exploitative space where she and other residents felt deeply unsafe and unhappy. She was required to give baths to mentally disabled residents, clean up after those who did not have control of their bowel movements and, worst of all, live in complete isolation, cut off from friends and family. The residents’ valuables, including phones, were (and perhaps still are) taken away from “inmates” as part of the admission procedures. 

Shelter institutions are always doing a difficult walk between providing security to all residents without compromising the fundamental freedoms and privacy of residents to live a dignified life. I argued with the state about their casual assumption that it was fine for the staff to search and seize the residents’ property at any time. I could appreciate that if they had reasonable suspicion or fear that a resident had illegal drugs or weapons that would be a source of danger to her and other residents, they should have the power to search and seize illegal and dangerous substances, but in the institution under discussion a mobile phone is not allowed, so search and seizure of mobile phone is probably the most common mischief caught by this rule.

Discourse of Protection

The beginnings of these jail-like institutions are rooted in the discourse of protecting vulnerable women from prostitution and trafficking rackets that underpinned the need for shelters under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, (since amended). The language and existing practices of these shelters still reflect this deeply troubling reality of jail-like conditions in shelters: “Superintendents” are in charge of “inmates” in institutions where no one is concerned about the emotional well-being and recovery of survivors. There are no individual case files and certainly no long- or short-term planning with survivors about their future options and choices. 

It is this extremely disturbing reality that forced a number of residents of the Odhav Nari Sanrakshan Gruh shelter in Gujarat to escape from their prisons in October 2014. The resulting media coverage was used by the PEC in collaboration with the late feminist Trupti Shah and the late activist Afroz Jahan to initiate a PIL. The court proceedings were initiated in November 2014 and have resulted in the high court taking some substantive steps to ameliorate conditions in shelters.

The PIL drew the high court’s attention to the inhuman living conditions inside Odhav Nari Gruh, lack of medical facilities, hygiene, freedom of movement, exploitation of residents and absence of rehabilitation plans for them. There was no evidence of any admission or exit procedure or policy. There were serious allegations of misconduct and misuse of residents by the government servants running it, along with lack of transparency in its functioning. 

In the case of the Gujarat PIL, the high court eventually constituted a committee of citizens, including women heading prominent NGOs and the chief secretary of the women and child welfare department to visit eight shelters and report to the court. The most remarkable thing about the committee’s visits to the shelters and reports thereafter is that they document the deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness of residents with the manner in which they are treated by staff, and lack of contact and communication with the external world. The court has also appointed a committee to reframe the rules for all state shelters in Gujarat, recognising that the rules framed more than 30 years ago do not suit the expectations and demands of modern society.

In line with all modern legislative frameworks targeting violence, the PWDVA mandates that states must provide shelters, counselling services and legal aid to survivors. However, as we discovered when we started redrafting the rules for shelters, the act or the rules do not mention what these shelters must provide, the number of staff members, their roles and most importantly, the purpose of the shelter. I discovered from the information provided by state functionaries during the course of the PIL that most of the present-day shelters were set up for “upliftment and development” of women and girls under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. The rights-based language of modern legislations and Supreme Court judgments supporting the constitutional rights of all women to live with dignity and safety have had no effect on those responsible for the running of these shelters. In Gujarat, post the PIL and PEC’s interventions, some efforts have been made regarding the orientation of the staff and training on rights of women with mental health issues. A number of the shelter staff communicated that they found the training useful. 

Lack of Data

It is impossible to present a coherent, uniform picture on operation of shelters at the state and national levels, given the acute shortage of data capturing not just the facilities available but the experiences of women residents in state and non-state shelters. There are efforts underway by women’s rights groups to collect the required data in their respective states in order to raise demands collectively to bring about the required changes in the running of shelters that do exist and to demand shelters where they do not. It is clear from the multiplicity of issues and diverse needs of survivors that bringing about institutional change is going to take a very long time indeed. Shelters in Gujarat are dealing with a heterogeneous group of women, including Bangladeshi trafficked women, women from other states who speak languages not spoken or ­understood by staff, women with physical and mental disability, women who are survivors of domestic violence and many women who were abandoned by their families. This is likely to be the situation in all states.

The quality of counselling services provided is poor; its availability is patchy. The Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative reported that on paper there are a number of service providers providing counselling services; many police stations and courts also have a counsellor, however there is little information on what the nature of counselling is, whether counselling is provided by professionals, what are the circumstances and stages at which counselling is provided, the objective of such counselling and whether counselling is at the request of the woman and respects her wishes. 

There is a need for a pool of senior qualified counsellors, psychiatrists and mental health experts to assess the mental health needs of survivors to ensure that they are given the appropriate level of support and to prioritise cases where there are risks of serious self-harm or suicide. Particularly, there is a need for counsellors to support survivors and families who have taken on the long-term stress and hassles of engaging with the justice system by seeking remedies under PWDVA 2005. The biggest obstacle to securing justice is the systemic problem of delay confronting the Indian justice system.

The new rules framed by the committee appointed by the Supreme Court in the case of the PEC PIL is to ensure that the shelters and their staff answer the following questions.

(i) For whom is the shelter? Who can refuse admission and on what grounds?

(ii) What is the purpose of the shelter? 

Whose responsibility is it to see that the purpose of the shelter is actually being carried out on a day-to-day basis? (iii) Whose responsibility is it to monitor the functioning of the shelters at the state level?

Whilst the PIL has now been going on for over three years, we hope to soon have a model set of rules for women’s shelters and engage with their implementation.

Updated On : 15th Sep, 2018


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