The disgraceful news of “mass sexual abuse” of minor girls at government-funded and NGO-run shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has shaken the nation and drawn attention once again to the issue of safety and protection of residents in those institutions. We, the members of Utthan Survivors Leaders Council, found the incidents utterly shameful and disgusting. We are extremely angry about the fact that spaces considered safe for women and children have now become places of abuse and exploitation. As survivors ourselves we have had experiences of staying in shelter homes, some of us have visited them, and many of us are working with women who have lived in these homes.
Utthan is strongly against the forced institutionalisation of women who are 18 years and above. We have had opportunities to talk to some of the residents in some shelter homes in Maharashtra. The residents, who are survivors of human trafficking, shared that they were kept and treated like prisoners in the shelter homes; their movements were restricted and were under constant surveillance. They also told us that they had very limited interactions with family members and had to wait for years to be united with them. This often leads them to self-harm. We have seen that long-term and forced institutionalisation has adverse effects on the lives of the women and children.
However, even if one needs to be in the shelter home for any length of time, the question that disturbs us is – are these shelter homes really doing what they are supposed to do, in terms of protection and rehabilitation? When a woman or a girl child is placed in the shelter home, she expects it to provide her safety and security unlike the place from where she has come or has been rescued. On the contrary, our states are funding homes which are nothing less than brothels if we take into account the two shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that are currently in the news.
Young girls being sexually abused in shelter homes is something we had heard about. However, this revelation really proves that whatever is said about these places is actually true. Our experiences say that traffickers and brothel managers conduct their business in secrecy and fear because they know that they might get punished if they are caught, but the people who were arrested for the Muzaffarnagar or the Deoria shelter home were doing their business without any fear of retribution or shame. This gives an impression that the owners/managers of the shelter homes enjoy a certain degree of impunity – they probably thought they could get away with the crime – so brutal and gruesome!
We are shocked to hear that the people who were running and managing the shelter homes are the ones who are abusing them and have links with powerful and influential figures having political connections. Since they seem to be hand in gloves in this dirty business, we fail to understand who can then be trusted in this system when it comes to the safety of victims of violence.
From Utthan, we would like to offer some suggestions based on our experiences and learning about how shelter homes could be made safer and better for women and children:
From all of the scandals that have broken in the news regarding shelter homes in the past months, we feel extremely angry and saddened. We would like to extend our support to the residents and explore opportunities of working together. We also heard how Ms Maneka Gandhi has asked for social audits of shelter homes around the country. We feel that it is high time and fully support this action of hers.
Utthan is a survivors leaders’ collective. They are a group of young women survivors of trafficking who are engaged in collectively combating trafficking, exploitation and slavery, through policy engagement, media awareness, strategic litigation and research.
If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.