Bharati Sharma, former chairperson of a Child Welfare Committee in New Delhi, and founder of the NGO Shakti Shalini, describes one such case. In 2007, a five-year-old girl was briefly left alone at home by her parents. Her mother had gone back to the village with her younger sibling; her father had gone or work on night duty. A female neighbour was supposed to stay the night with her but got slightly delayed. In that short span of time, a neighbour entered the home and raped the child so brutally she was hospitalised for a month. The community banded together and informed a social worker from the NGO World Vision. They got an FIR filed.
This is where Sharma stepped in. Her outfit managed to get a lawyer from HAQ for free. It made all the difference. The parents had wanted to give the child up to a shelter home out of shame. But the Child Welfare Committee and the lawyer counselled them out of it. He used to visit them at home, patiently explaining the process to them ‚ÄĒ something a public prosecutor will rarely have the time to do. The magistrate, in this case, was so insensitive, the hearing for the child‚Äôs statement was fixed and postponed seven times, forcing her to appear repeatedly in court. The lawyer took this up with the Delhi High Court and had guidelines issued for all stakeholders: police, doctors and lawyers. The whole case took three years, but the perpetrator was sentenced for 10 years. And the family was able to go back to their existing home, without abandoning the child.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs how crucial legal aid or the lack of it can be while dealing with rape of minors,‚ÄĚ says Sharma. ‚ÄúOften parents have no clue what to do; they don‚Äôt have the finances and are under a lot of trauma. Under such circumstances, a dedicated lawyer for a minor victim can literally mean the line between life and snuffing its future out.‚ÄĚ
Yet, despite all the public noise over rape in recent months, almost no government has paid acute attention to galvanise any of this on ground.
THE GANGRAPE on 16 December and the child rape this week have triggered unprecedented protests in Delhi and across the country. While these protests have undoubtedly been a powerful catalyst ‚ÄĒ breaking the silence, searing the country‚Äôs consciousness, ringing in at least some important legislative changes ‚ÄĒ their demands and their echo chambers in the media and political establishment have also veered towards two issues that threaten to derail more substantive changes. This is the demand for death penalty for child rape and the banning of pornography.
Apart from all the usual ethical and legal arguments against having death penalty in a civilised democracy, to ask for it in the context of child rapes is almost suicidal. Repeatedly, we have seen families loath to break the omerta and speak about their children being raped merely to save ‚Äúfamily honour‚ÄĚ. Imagine what a steel wall of silence ‚ÄĒ what a complex concertina of social backlash ‚ÄĒ will descend if speaking up will mean death for one‚Äôs fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbours.
The question of banning pornography is slightly more complicated, but perhaps equally inconsequential.
Bharti Ali of HAQ does believe that regulating of pornography might be necessary now, given the hyper-sexualised content available to children on their cell phones, computers and television screens. ‚ÄúRather than changing the channel though, it might be a better idea to let a child watch a film where the actors are making out to the end, so that he or she can place sex in a context instead of looking at it as an isolated, unemotional act,‚ÄĚ she says.
But Asha points out that pornography has existed before the Internet and will continue to do so. It is impossible to control. In any case, for children growing up in tiny, box-sized 8ftx8ft shanties, crammed children and adult in joint families, the sexual act can never remain hidden. Privacy is not a luxury the poor can afford. Even in the cases of juvenile rapists that she has encountered, Asha says boys find it easier to ‚Äúscare a little girl‚ÄĚ into doing what they want rather than look for money to watch a blue film at the local parlour or visit a brothel.
Our desire to weed out the scourge of rape from India has to start a lot deeper.
SUNITHA KRISHNAN refuses to engage with the din emanating from New Delhi just now. Twentyfive years ago, Krishnan, then 16, was gangraped by eight men. Among the many injuries the ordeal caused to her body and mind, it also left Krishnan partially deaf ‚ÄĒ this is her second ear surgery in four years. Despite social pressure to define herself as a ‚Äėvictim‚Äô of rape, Krishnan has been not just a survivor of, but a champion against sexual violence. She has consistently refused to hide her identity or her face, insisting that rape survivors must be the first to ‚Äúshift the shame‚ÄĚ.
Yet, when TEHELKA contacted her to talk about the rape of minors, she chose to remain silent. ‚ÄúDo the story when there is no noise about it,‚ÄĚ was her terse reply to our email. In a sense, it was not surprising. At our first meeting, she had lambasted the media‚Äôs biased coverage, saying that journalists never hounded rapists, and even when they did, it was always the lower class, anonymous perpetrator that they wrote about ‚ÄĒ never the father taking his daughter on solitary vacations, or the uncle always coming over when no one was home.
When Krishnan spoke of a ‚Äúcertain kind‚ÄĚ of rape that is reported, she referred to the privileging of rape by strangers over rape by family or institutions. The insinuation is ‚ÄĒ New Delhi will take to the streets over the gangrape on the bus, or for the five-year-old raped by her neighbour, but never for the countless boys and girls violated as a matter of routine in their own homes, or the girls violated by officers of the state. Even the new anti-rape Bill, generally considered a step in the right direction, stays coy on the issue of marital rape, or rape by the armed forces. The only way to make sense of the sharply accelerating incidences of sexual violence against children is to stop looking at them in isolation. There is something that these rapes by strangers, families, caretakers and customers have in common: the noise that they create is not just getting incredibly loud, but it is also extremely close.
|Child I¬†– AGE 7 |¬†Mumbai, Maharashtra
Occurred 1988-99 | Case never filed
He was raped regularly between the age of seven and 18 by his uncle. His uncle became more sadistic as time went by, opening him up with tongs when he was not receptive, poking him with needles, inserting foreign objects into his anus. When he told his mother that he was bleeding, she dismissed it, saying he had been eating too many mangoes.
|Child J¬†- AGE ¬†8 |¬†Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
Occurred 2010 | Convicted in 2010
The eight-year-old was raped so brutally by her maternal uncle‚Äôs 15-year-old son over three months that she had to be hospitalised with severe vaginal bleeding. Her younger sister was also raped. The girls told their mother about the abuse, but she tried to hush it up. They finally complained to their father, who lodged a police complaint. After an inquiry, the rapist was sent to a juvenile justice home.
Two weeks ago, when we had met in New York at Newsweek‚Äôs Women in the World summit, Krishnan sat alone on the steps of the Lincoln Theatre eating her lunch, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt feel too comfortable in crowds,‚ÄĚ she smiled, as if to explain why we could not have this conversation in the banquet hall inside. At 4 ft 6 in, Krishnan is as tall as she was when she was 16. She says her case was ‚Äúdoomed‚ÄĚ from the beginning because she could not recall the faces of a single one of her assailants. ‚ÄúAll I remember from that night is a smell,‚ÄĚ she says. A smell. And the lasting fear of being in crowds.