How we fail our girls

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Illustration: Manisha Yadav
Illustration: Manisha Yadav

Many girls trapped in adverse circumstances land up in ‘protection homes’ or nari niketans. They are brought into these institutions on a magistrate’s order and remain there until a magistrate decrees their release. Life inside is one of confinement, little better than what one experiences in a prison. They are provided with food, education and medical care, but allowed no contact with the world outside the locked doors of the institution — no visitors, phone calls or letters.

So, who are the inmates of these ‘protection homes’ across India? Not more than four percent of them are juvenile offenders, for whom these institutions function as correctional facilities. But most of the inmates are innocent girls, some of whom were found “wandering” — i.e., without a settled place of residence — and, therefore, deemed to be exposed to “moral danger”. A disproportionate number of inmates — almost 60 percent — comprise girls who were “caught with a boy”. These are cases where the girl claims to be an adult and married to the boy, while her father maintains that she is a minor tricked into elopement.

We trace the stories of a few such inmates to understand the circumstances in which girls end up in these institutions and what they experience there.

Naseema
Naseema is an inmate of a protection home in Lucknow and is around 18-19 years old. She used to live with her parents in Mohanlalganj colony in the city. After her father passed away, her mother married her paternal uncle. One day, her stepfather sent her alone to a garden, where his friend, Fakhru, raped her. After an FIR was lodged, the stepfather put pressure on her to name one Jumman as the rapist instead of Fakhru. When Naseema refused to give a false statement, her stepfather abandoned her and the magistrate ordered her to be sent to a protection home.

The authorities informed her family, but no one turned up to take her back. Perhaps, her stepfather wanted to deny her the right to some property that her father had left for her. According to the rules, she cannot be released until someone from her family comes to take her.

Meanwhile, Naseema met Kavita Upadhyay, a counsellor with our NGO, Suraksha. Upadhyay looked at her file and found that she was pregnant because of the rape. The NGO sought details about her family and found that she had a sister, who was married. Now, the dilemma was whether to reveal the fact that she was pregnant to the sister’s family. Won’t that mean subjecting her to more embarrassment? But Upadhyay decided to take Naseema’s sister into confidence and after securing her consent, convinced her husband to adopt the baby and take Naseema along.

According to the law, a magistrate can entrust a young girl to the custody of her guardian. The NGO managed to get an affidavit proving that Naseema’s sister and brother-in-law were her guardians. And then, Naseema was sent to live with her sister.

Naseema’s story raises several questions about the legal provisions regarding sending the girl back to her family. But what if the family subjects the girl to such trauma that the only option left for her is elopement? What kind of protection would she get if she is handed over to her family? In the name of protecting her from outside threats, she is sent back to the actual perpetrators, her family. The protection homes do not have any provision to counsel the families or slap charges against them. No efforts are made to change the exploitative conditions that drove the girls out in the first place.

When an inmate turns 18, she is either married off or handed over to her father’s custody. It is shocking how in the 21st century, anachronistic norms that require a woman to be in the custody of either her father or her husband are still being followed with such nonchalance — and with the full backing of the law.

Savitri

Protection
Illustration: Manisha Yadav

A resident of Malihabad, UP, Savitri’s only “crime” was that she married someone she loved. A Dalit of the Chamar (tanners) community, she eloped with Surendra Paasi, who was from another caste. They got married, but her father lodged an FIR, accusing Surendra of kidnapping and raping her. Surendra fled, leaving her alone. The magistrate ordered her to be sent to a protection home in Lucknow after her father also abandoned her.

When the NGO activists asked her who she would prefer to live with — her father or Surendra — she said she would like to go with her husband. That is what she had told the magistrate every time she was produced before him.

When the NGO located Surendra, he had already married another woman and had two kids. He had started living elsewhere soon after Savitri’s father lodged the FIR against him. The NGO activists went to Savitri’s village and talked to the residents. “Savitri was a Chamar. Why did elope with a Paasi? She was only 14 years old,” said a teacher in the village school. “She should have known that Surendra’s father would never allow a Chamar’s daughter to enter his house.” For the villagers, a 14-year-old girl is old enough to understand the norms forbidding inter-caste marriage.

When Surendra did not return, a dejected Savitri agreed to go back to her father’s home. When the police brought her to her doorstep, her father plainly refused to take her back and said that he was ashamed of her. Savitri was then taken back to the protection home.

The authorities at the protection home found “suitable matches” for eight inmates, including Savitri, and decided to marry them off. With tears in her eyes, she told the NGO activists that she was scared of getting married. The activists requested the home superintendent not to make haste, but within two months, preparations for the wedding began. Then the activists asked Savitri, “Why did you agree now? We have convinced your father to take you back.” Savitri replied resentfully, “I won’t go there now. Why didn’t he allow me to return earlier?”

Savitri was married to Shivlal, a Kurmi by caste, who drives a tempo in Bareilly. His first wife had left him after two months of marriage. When the activists asked the superintendent if they found out any other details about Shivalal, such as his age, she said, “Well, anyone can dye their hair. So, I can’t really tell you his age. But from the salwar suit and shawl he brought for Savitri, it is certain that he has a good choice.”

Perhaps Savitri is happily married.

So who is responsible for Savitri’s fate? Her father filed a complaint against her lover but abandoned her, setting one of the cruellest examples of patriarchy. The fact needs to be underlined because it is found that most cases of dowry deaths occur when the girl is turned away by her father.

Why do fathers do it? Perhaps because this is what society expects them to do. The villagers blamed the 14-year-old for eloping with a man from another community. If that is the crime of these girls, there are nine others in the home who ask why they were abandoned even though they had eloped with men of their own community.

But why did they elope at all? Savitri has four sisters. When her mother passed away, the sisters did household chores and tended the cattle. They did not go to school. In a public discussion with the villagers, we raised the point that the girl eloped because she may not have felt loved within the family. The villagers replied, “What is love? Her father could have married again if he wanted to, but he didn’t. Does it not mean anything?”

While we were there, six new girls were enrolled in the Lucknow women’s home. They had been “rescued” from Murshidabad after being caught with boys. Their fathers, like Savitri’s, filed complaints but refused to take them back home.

Curious to find out what was the treatment meted out to them by their family, what kind of life they had spent, which memories had stuck with them, we had a long conversation with them. They were not sent to school, but were made to herd cattle and cook food all day long. They had no friends nor had they played any games.

One of the 37 inmates told us how she did hoop rolling with tyres and how much she enjoyed it. She even loved playing with matchsticks. This girl was not from a village. She was from a run-down neighbourhood of the city. It is common knowledge that it is easy to entice girls leading dull and monotonous lives with a little show of sympathy or love. Their families were exploiting these girls like child labourers. None of them could recall a single instance where their father had said a kind word to them or shown affection. What is surprising then if Savitri eloped with Surendra?

Savitri’s lover Surendra was a married man, much older than her and a father of two children. He did not come to take Savitri with him. Our legal system was quick to send the girl to the protection home after her father’s complaint, but the real culprit was not arrested even after a year.

Savitri’s father failed to provide her education, show her affection or take care of her in any way. Instead, he filled her days with darkness and turned her life into a stigma.

Susheela

Illustrations: Manisha Yadav
Illustration: Manisha Yadav

Susheela ran off with Kareem to Surat. Her father registered a complaint at a police station in Lucknow. A few months later, the police “rescued” Susheela from Surat, brought her to the protection home and jailed the boy. The girl stood by the boy. But her father filed a habeas corpus petition and the girl was produced before a magistrate. Once again she repeated her wish to go with the boy. The girl was Hindu, the boy Muslim. The court advised them to get married. The girl changed her religion and a nikah was carried out. For the past six years, the couple have been residing in Surat and often call us.

Our conversation with the girls revealed that none of them were aware that the minimum legal age for marriage was 18 years or that secretly exchanging vows in a temple did not count as marriage. They lie about their age before the magistrate so that they are not declared minors and sent back to their father’s home. It is the responsibility of the protection home to summon their family members; dispatching a letter is not enough. This attitude of the homes forces the girls languish here for years. In most cases, it is possible to rehabilitate the girls only after some NGO intervenes and fights for them. Almost 80 percent of the girls choose to live with men they had eloped with.

But does the entire blame rest with the authorities? Often greed for money and fame leads the media and NGOs to go overboard in condemning the government and its policies. Sometimes, they even produce victims of incest and rape at public hearings. Instead, these NGOs should work towards educating and empowering the victims. The age-old concepts of caste, arranged marriages and obedience that culminate in the abandoning of a girl need to be revised. We need to assess the factors that drive a girl to elope. Is she a victim of incest? Is she admonished or ridiculed at home? Is she forced to labour?

I recall a case our NGO dealt with. A husband had poured kerosene over his wife and set her on fire. She was rescued. “She had a loose character. She has even lived in a protection home once, after we had a fight. You know very well what kind of girls live there,” her husband told me without any shame.

A savage criminal who was bent on killing his wife was tarnishing her character because his persecution had driven her to seek refuge in an institution. It highlights one more fact about the inmates of protection homes. After marriage, they are subjected to insult and ridicule by their husbands. Taunted for her past, the victim is held guilty of a crime that landed her in a protection home.

Since the identity of girls living in homes is confidential, their names cannot be revealed through TV or newspaper ads. There are several inmates who know nothing about their family except their father’s name. They arrived as children and grew up in the home. It is a challenge to find out about their relatives while keeping their privacy intact.

There are three ways in which a girl can leave a home: the administration grants the custody to her parents, or she is married off, or else, the girl proves herself to be capable of being economically, socially and morally self-reliant. During an informal conversation, one of the superintendents laments, “Even if the magistrate orders her release, where do we send the girl?” A follow-up is also required. That is why in 99 percent of the cases, the girl’s custody is entrusted to her father or her husband. In case the girl does not want to return to her father’s house, or the father is not willing to take her, or the family’s whereabouts are not known, the girl has only two options — get married or spend the rest of her life in the home. In most cases, they choose to marry, even though reluctantly.

In a home, the girls are cut off from mainstream education because they are not allowed to attend school. In a country where a large number of youth are unemployed despite having degrees from universities and technical institutes, how will these girls confined in the homes ever become independent? Clearly, the third option is only a sham.

Some of the girls are detained here as offenders under the Juvenile Justice Act. A girl claims that once she was travelling with her uncle and aunt in a bus. There was a wallet lying near her. Her uncle asked her to pick it up. All three were caught as pickpockets. Later her uncle and aunt were released, but she is still held in the protection home.

The protection homes fulfil only the basic needs of the girls such as food, shelter and safety, but they do nothing to meet the other needs — love, affection, self-respect and self-actualisation. Sometimes the girls get to savour a good meal when some benevolent people send pooris, parathas or halwa on the death anniversary of a loved one. Sometimes they send old clothes. But is this what the girls want?

While the society neglected them, the government further suppresses them. No one made an effort to restore their dignity. The life of the inmates is a mirror of the lives of all the girls in our society. Despite all its claims of transparency, the government wants to keep these institutions under a cloak of secrecy. Why? Why are innocent girls detained here even if they are mere witnesses? These questions need to be pondered.

Anju

Illustrations: Manisha Yadav
Illustration: Manisha Yadav

Without this last story, the narrative would be incomplete. Anju hailed from a village near Lucknow. The 13-year-old girl was pregnant when we met her in 2001. She was full of innocence. The home authorities had sent a postcard informing her family about her. We located her family in a neighbourhood called Chamarhi. Strangely, in a country where the Constitution strictly prohibits discrimination based on caste or religion, we still have localities with such names that are inhabited by particular communities. Anju’s father was a drunkard and her mother had died. She lived with her maternal grandmother. The man, Karim, whose child she was carrying, refused to take her home. We summoned him to the NGO’s counselling centre. He was 34-35 years old. “Anju’s grandmother used to work in our fields. I used to call the girl to the cattle shed,” he said. When he was admonished for exploiting a girl 20 years younger than him, he said unabashedly, “If it weren’t me, her father would have sold her to someone else. This is what happens in their community.”

Anju, on the other hand, was completely ignorant of the consequences of pregnancy. Karim exploited her, but she thought it was love. And soon, the 14-year-old innocent girl turned into a mother in a government-run protection home.

Dr Renu Verma used to visit the protection home to provide medical care to the inmates. All the pregnant girls were given a boiled egg and a banana every day. For an impoverished girl, it was like a blessing. There are several legal hassles in carrying out abortion. The Juvenile Justice Act does not recognise adolescence. In the eyes of the law, anyone below 18 years of age is a child and all those above that limit are adults. Since the consent of a minor is not valid and their parents are not around to allow an abortion, the doctors have no choice but to help them give birth.

Sharing these thoughts in 2014, one wonders: had the girls not found a place in these homes, would they be hanging from some tree tied with their own red and green chunris, like what happened to the two sisters in Badaun? A “secular” leader proclaims, “Boys commit mistakes. Should they be hanged?” Can 13-year-old innocent girls be hanged then?

Following the Nirbhaya gangrape case, a liberal left-wing feminist group began an online campaign to bring down the age of consent for sex from 18 to 16, arguing that children become physically mature much faster now. And it only evoked the images of young girls forced to deliver babies in these homes. What is the difference between these liberal feminists and those illiterate elderly women who say that a girl is ready to be married once she attains puberty? Is it right to separate sex and fertility from love and responsibility?

Workers at the Mary Stopes Clinic claim that whenever an unmarried young girl comes to the clinic for MTP (Medical Termination of Pregnancy), her partner never accompanies her. She usually pays a secret visit, bringing along a confidant. It only shows how men in our semi-modern society are using technology for exploiting the female body; for them, sex, whether within or outside marriage, is little more than a game.

The social framework was created so that all members of society could exist in harmony. But, the rules, values, ethics and ideas of respect for adults, caste difference and morality that constituted this framework were made so stiflingly rigid that a person’s emotions and sensibilities lost their worth.

The stories of the inmates of the protection homes show that it is not the girl who needs counselling, but the family who abandons her. When all jobs need training, why is there no training for parenthood? Everyone is free to be a parent, no matter how insensitive, cruel or unaffectionate. They need love and adoration, but most of the girls face only neglect, disrespect, rejection and the burden of work in their unhappy homes.

(The writer is a women’s rights activist based in Uttar Pradesh)

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman

letters@tehelka.com

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