In Focus

The rape that shook the nation

India has come a long way in protecting minors, though it’s almost always that isolated incident of brutal rape or gruesome murder that shakes up the society and the government into strengthening legal and societal frameworks for children, says Manu Shrivastava

The case that brought to light the child rights debate in India recently was the rape of a minor girl, in Kathua, in January 2018. The medical reports that came out in September 2018 confirmed that the eight-year-old girl was sexually assaulted, and died of asphyxia. The brutal gang rape and murder of the girl shook the country to its core. The rape occurred in Rasana village in Kathua, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Too many victims

The victim, an eight-year-old girl from the nomadic Bakarwal community, had disappeared while she was out grazing the horses. She was abducted, and a week later her body was found, and investigations revealed that she was raped by eight men, including four police officers and a juvenile. Two of the police officers had even attempted to destroy evidence.

The main accused, Sanji Ram, the priest of the family temple where the girl was held captive and raped, had devised the plan to kidnap and kill the victim. Amid country-wide protests, the accused were arrested and put on trial, which began in April 2018. The anger also led to the government introducing an ordinance to strengthen the POCSO Act, particularly introducing the death penalty for rapists of girls below 12 years of age.

Kathua was only beginning to fade from people’s memories when another incident came to light in September 2018, in Kathua district. A 62-year-old pastor, Antony Thomas, was arrested and booked from the unregistered orphanage where he was keeping the children. The arrest was made following allegations from the orphanage children that they were being sexually abused by the pastor. Among the 19 children were eight girls who had complained of being sexually abused, harassed, tortured and physically assaulted at the orphanage run by the pastor from Kerala. Upon arrest and further investigation, Thomas failed to produce proper documentation for running the facility.

When it comes to landmark cases of child abuse in India, the infamous Anchorage case cannot be left behind. Dating back to 2001 when the offence took place, the case has played a significant role in the development of child abuse laws in India. The Anchorage Shelter Home set up in 1995 in Colaba, Mumbai, by Duncan Grant and Allan John Walters came in the news in 2001, when both the English founders were accused of sexually abusing children of the orphanage for years. The abuse came to light when a volunteer from the orphanage called up the NGO, CHILDLINE, Mumbai, revealing the ongoing abuse. Further investigations by a committee, and later by the police, confirmed the allegations. Victims of abuse came forward to give testimonies of their personal experience of abuse and trauma. The accused first absconded but after much diplomatic deliberations were brought back to India for trial. The case also brought to light the condition of street children and atrocities on children in shelter homes, the very place that is supposed to protect them.

Grant and Walters not only sexually abused the children from their shelter home, but even invited foreign paedophiles regularly, who would take the children to Goa, and sexually abuse them. Further investigation and legal action led to stronger laws against child sex abuse.

A similar case occurred in Bihar in July 2018, where about 40 girls of an orphanage, some minors aged between 7–18, were sexually abused and tormented. The shelter home called Balika Grah housed many girls over the years, mainly suffering from speech disabilities. The girls were force-fed food mixed with sedatives to ensure compliance for abuse and assault.

Further investigation and accounts of survivors revealed horrific details of years of abuse and torture. Medical tests of the girls confirmed that girls as young as seven years old, were sexually abused. There were marks of burns and torture all over their bodies, and injection marks which strengthened allegations of girls being drugged. The shelter home was being run as a brothel, and many girls were made to forcefully abort there itself, if they got pregnant. The case is going on in a POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Court now.

When abuse happens at home

There is always a risk to a child from strangers, but the fragile existence of children and their vulnerability to predators stares us in the eye when parents and relatives abuse their own children. There have been thousands of incidents around the world when a parent or a relative or member of the extended family, i.e., someone known, exploits and abuses a child. One of the main reasons for the introduction of the POCSO Act was the fact that more and more children were being subjected to sexual abuse and harassment from their own family members. Another such case that shocked the country was the Mira Road tantrik case of Mumbai. The victims in this case were a minor girl and her sister, and the perpetrator was none other than the father of the sisters, and a tantrik who visited the family often.

The abuse started when the elder sister was a 11-year-old child. Her father started raping her along with the tantrik. All this with the knowledge of her mother who told her not to disobey the tantrik who had convinced the family that establishing sexual relations with the daughter will alleviate the family’s financial woes and bring prosperity. The girl was kept under close surveillance to prevent her from escaping or confiding in someone else. The shocking part was that the mother kept quiet, in fact threatened the daughter with dire consequences if she spoke to anyone about it. The girl finally mustered courage to complain to her maternal uncle about the abuse when she learnt that her father had started raping her younger sister, and the uncle approached the police. The father and the tantrik were arrested along with the mother for abetment. Shockingly, all three were acquitted of their charges because of lack of evidence. The case is important as it raises questions on the safety of children in their own homes, and how the legal position of ‘minors’ is unclear and can be manipulated when their guardians are the perpetrators of heinous crimes.