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An Open Letter To Ensure Safety And Protection Of Residents At Shelter Homes

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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:

  1. No adult person should be forcibly institutionalised, and kept in shelter homes against their wish in the name of protection. Adults have a right to free mobility and should not be incarcerated for years in the name of protection.
  2. If it is deemed necessary for women and children to temporarily take refuge in a shelter home, then we propose that these homes should not be like jails, they should be made more friendly and open.
  3. We recommend shelter homes inside communities and community-based care inside shelter homes. This would make women and children feel at ease and are also able to heal faster.
  4. There should be a proper mechanism to monitor these homes, which should be done by external agencies who are neutral.
  5. Surveys should be conducted by outsiders in a periodic manner, with private interviews so that the interviewees can share and open up to them. Very similar to the TISS psychologists who did an audit at the Homes.
  6. We in Utthan have the power to rate our Social Workers and the Duty Bearers on a quarterly basis using an app developed for this. We rate them on their responsiveness, and how satisfied we are with the services they provide us. If the residents also get an opportunity to rate their social workers or their attendants like that, it can be an indicator of the functioning of the shelter home.
  7. Link needs to be established between the Police at the destination and the source area, to locate the family of the women and children quickly, so that she does not have to remain in the shelter home for long.
  8. Families of girls/women who are brought to the shelter home should be immediately contacted to send them home, and only girls/women whose family cannot be traced or whose legal proceedings requires them to stay should be kept in the shelter home.
  9. The people who manage these homes should consist of a team that will include survivors who have stayed in shelter homes and have the first-hand experience in it and people who are trained to deal with rescued victims.
  10. The team of people managing shelter home should manage a particular home for a limited period of time and then transferred to other homes.
  11. If it is a women and child shelter home, men should not be included in the management of them, they should be solely managed by women, and the same for men as well.
  12. The residents should form collectives among themselves to support one another and raise their voice against injustice.
  13. It is important that the residents are also empowered inside the homes, they need to be made aware of what to do, who to call in case of emergency.
  14. The responsibility for shelter homes is not just to give them vocational training which is of no use to them once they are out. The focus should also be on building their capacity, teaching them self-defence techniques as well so that they can protect themselves.

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 You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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