By Towfeeq Wani:
On the day Shahid reached Srinagar, schools were closed and the streets deserted as the city had been put under a curfew by the state authorities. Unable to reach his planned destination, which was Kashmir University, he managed to reach a school on the outskirts of the city which was luckily open despite the restrictions. Although he had not anticipated any trouble in the final leg of his ‘tour-de-India’ sort of journey; he was satisfied that he had finally finished it. Two days later he flew back to his hometown.
How It All Started
Forty-one days earlier, on 03 June 2015, a student of Jamia Milia Islamia, Mohammed Shahid (which literally means a ‘witness’) started a solo bicycle journey from Swami Vivekananda Ashram in Kanyakumari, in hope of reaching Srinagar, which he finally did on 13 July 2015. Sitting in my room in Kashmir, on the same day, I read in Jamia Journal that Shahid had finally arrived in the city. A little description was given along with a photograph in which he was donning a bicycle gear and had many placards and posters around him. A first peep and I thought it had something to do with bicycling or environmental issues. However, upon reading some of the placards in the photograph, I realised the larger frame of the picture.
Working with an NGO ‘Butterflies’ in Delhi, Shahid got to visit a juvenile home attached with Tihar Jail in November 2014 as a part of the project ‘Children’s Conflict With Law’. The experience he had there was primarily instrumental in arousing his interest in the issue. “I met around 400 kids, and as per my assessment, 99% of them had been sexually assaulted at one point or the other by the authorities there,” Shahid says with a heightened sense of concern visible in his expressions, “It all started from there.”
Juvenile Homes: ‘India’s Hell Holes’
Rape and sexual violence against inmates has been used as a systematic tool of torture in jails throughout the world, reports of which have surfaced in the media many times. However, children are the easiest targets of sexual abuse inside the fortified walls of a juvenile home, most of whom are not even aware of the ways in which they are abused. In its 2013 report India’s Hell Holes: Child Sexual Assault in Juvenile Justice Homes, the Asian Centre for Human Rights said that sexual offences against children in India have reached epidemic proportion.
The report stated that more than 48,338 child rape cases were recorded from 2001 to 2011 and that India saw an increase of 336% of child rape cases during these years. “Juvenile justice homes, established to provide care and protection as well as re-integration, rehabilitation and restoration of the juveniles in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection, have become India’s hell holes, where inmates are subjected to sexual assault and exploitation, torture and ill treatment apart from being forced to live in inhuman conditions. The girls remain the most vulnerable,” states Mr Suhas Chakma, Director of Asian Centre for Human Rights.
Recently, an exposed child sex scandal jolted Pakistan as police discovered 400 video recordings of more than 280 children being forced to have sex in Punjab, after which the government ordered a judicial investigation into the case.
In India, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, drafted to effectively address sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children, deems a sexual assault to be ‘aggravated’ under certain circumstances, such as when the abuse is committed by a person in a position of trust and authority vis-à-vis the child, like a family member, police officer, teacher, or doctor. The cases of juvenile homes certainly fall in this category.
Pedalling For A Purpose
Back home in Kerala, many months later, Shahid told his parents about his experience in the juvenile home. “Unlike the large population of our country who wait for some external agency to come and solve our problems, you should raise awareness on the issue,” he recounts his mother telling him. Being a cycling enthusiast throughout his childhood, he decided to pedal across the length of India, from south to north. As such, he started his training in January. “I used to cycle daily in Delhi, mostly from Jamia to JNU and back.”
Although unintentionally, as Shahid admits, travelling on the bicycle did send a message of using environmental friendly modes of transportation as many Indian cities, especially New Delhi, continue to be among the most polluted ones in the world.
In his one-sided journey of about 4430 kilometres, Shahid visited 31 schools and some colleges where he spoke to hundreds of students. “I addressed people in 19 public places apart from the schools and also gave handbills to thousands of people I met during the course of my journey. Once I told them about my cause, almost all the people showed enthusiasm and many promised to further the message,” says Shahid.
When asked how this menace can be eradicated from the society, Shahid replies laughing, “Certainly not by riding bicycles.” Then suddenly, turning serious, he continues, “Basically we need to change ourselves and our families because that is from where most of the cases are reported.”
Some Things Are Not Better Left Unsaid
Following Shahid’s path, many students, organisations and clubs in his home state have started taking different initiatives to raise awareness on the issue. A large number of sexually abused children are too innocent to comprehend the fact that they are being exploited, and even those who realise what is going on are not experienced enough to handle the abusers. Also, adults consider it a taboo to even talk about it aloud while ironically they are the ones who abuse them. Even if children muster the courage to tell their elders, they are silenced for the fear of being shamed in the society.
“Everyone in the town talks about child abuse in general, but when it comes to this specific topic, most lips are sealed. Let us pledge not to be the mute spectators anymore,” says Shahid.