Child abuse: A mirror to our society’s soul

Nelson Mandela said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. The brutal sexual and physical abuse of inmates at shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh holds up a mirror to our society’s soul. So ugly is the reflected picture that we cannot bear to look at it; we prefer to look away.

Earlier this week, Parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which provides the death penalty for the rape of girls below 12 years. It replaces the Ordinance passed in April, after the rape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua and the gang-rape of a teenager in Unnao, in which a BJP MLA is implicated. Passed unanimously, the Act must be applied ruthlessly.

The principle perpetrators of the shelter home sex rackets have been jailed, but their co-conspirators are still out there. The Muzaffarpur shelter home proprietor, Brajesh Thakur, comes across as a shaitan in human form. The chairperson of the Bihar State Women’s Commission, who visited his house last year, has revealed sordid details: how the girls, aged 7 to 17, were stripped, beaten, starved, burnt. How they were drugged and then raped. How those who conceived were made to undergo abortions. Inmates, according to news reports, claimed that one girl was allegedly beaten to death while another tried to commit suicide. Horrifyingly, they referred to Thakur as “Hunterwale uncle”.

All this, under the nose of the state government, which paid for the shelter home. When Child Welfare Committee workers visited the premises, the girls were too scared to say anything in the presence of the staff. That sounds like a cop-out. Why did the social workers not insist on talking to the girls alone or try to give them the confidence to speak out or even look at them closely for signs of physical abuse? How was Thakur able to run an organised sex racket for years without being caught out? Why was the Tata Insitute of Social Sciences (TISS) able to detect the abuse, when government employees failed to do so?

The easy answer is that Thakur, himself a failed politician and newspaper owner, bought political influence with wealth. But that’s a half-truth. The hard fact is that nobody cared. Political points can be scored only when a member of a politically influential interest group is abused. Homeless children are not an interest group and can, thus, be safely ignored.

The abuse is endemic, as the TISS audit of the 110 state-funded short-stay and shelter homes for children and women in Bihar found. In 20 such facilities, it reported signs of sexual exploitation and physical abuse of inmates. In another shelter home run by Thakur, 11 women and four children were found to be missing.

Then came reports of girls aged 15 to 18 being repeatedly raped in a so-called shelter home in Deoria. The State government had apparently cancelled its licence a year ago, so it was pretty much being run as a brothel. Many of the girls had run away but those who remained were sent out to service clients.

In a classic instance of ‘too little too late’, officials have been sacked or transferred and the CBI asked to investigate both cases. Sadly, public confidence in the agency is minimal and there’s little expectation of the truth coming out. We know who the perpetrators were, but their clients were equally implicit. Will they ever be brought to justice?

The ‘beti bachao’ slogan clearly does not apply to shelter home kids; they are nobody’s daughters and the state has failed in its duty to protect them. Evidence of child abuse is all around us: child labourers, child beggars, child prostitutes, abandoned or ill-treated children. The State may argue that it does not have the resources to look after all of them, but the problem is not a lack of money, it is a lack of will. After all, the Bihar government paid Thakur to look after the children.

In the US, the State protects children even from their parents. If they are found to be unfit, the child can be taken away to be fostered elsewhere. The system doesn’t always work and many children wind up being abused and shifted from home to home. At least, society recognises their rights. Yet, we pride ourselves on our tightly-knit families and community spirit and look down upon the broken and single-parent families of the West.

Yes, the perpetrators must be held accountable, but so should the State. As for the rest of us, we must introspect on our level of complicity, in looking away from the unbearable.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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