headereye.jpgBY- FLAVIA AGNES

Despite progress and development we have not been able to close the gender gap for literacy rates.

Three years ago, when we had just started Rahat, a survivor support programme for rape victims, I had gone to meet a 16-year-old in a shelter home situated in the congested part of the old city in south Mumbai. For the next few days, each night as I tried to close my eyes, the scene I had witnessed there would haunt me.

It was a well-maintained home. A group of around 20-25 girls were engrossed in a vigorous game of football. In their blue school uniforms, their hair neatly tied into two plaits with bright red ribbons, they seemed like any other normal school children.

However, 16-year-old Anita (name changed), whom I had come to visit, was not among them. I spotted her sitting on the edge of the playground on the concrete steps leading to the warden’s office. The weight of her full-term pregnancy seemed to weigh her down as she attempted to rise to greet me. She seemed to be in acute depression. Anita’s father passed away when she was very young.

Her mother remarried, leaving her in the care of her paternal grandmother. Anita was sexually abused by her uncle (paternal aunt’s husband) over a long period, and when her pregnancy was detected, the police reluctantly filed a case of rape. After, the female police officer on duty slapped her several times, asking why she had come to the police station to file a complaint after doing “gandha kaam”.

I stood and watched the girls playing with joyful abundance. That sight cheered me. They appeared to be around 12-16 years. But as I observed them, something seemed amiss. Gradually the horror of it dawned on me. I noticed that each one was visibly pregnant, a child-woman. They had not yet mastered the gait of a pregnant woman. Their joyous faces and pregnant stomachs were a mismatch. So engrossed were they in the game, they had forgotten that they were pregnant.

They were placed in this home for long-term shelter until their delivery. After they recuperate, they would be discharged, leaving behind their newborns. The warden, a caring woman who looked after the girls as though they were her own, informed me that relatives seldom visited the girls, not even when they were going through a complicated delivery, struggling with breast feeding, coping with the pain of parting with their newborn and post-partum depression.

Then there is the impending trial. No one knows when their cases will come up. In some cases they are summoned within a week of their delivery to face a rigorous cross-examination.

The fact that these girls exist behind high walls and iron gates, hidden from the world outside, is living proof of the extent of child sexual abuse prevalent in our homes and neighbourhoods. Most cases end in acquittal, as did Anita’s, because the blood group of the child seldom matches with that of the accused.

What does this indicate? Faulty testing, callous manner of collecting body fluids in public hospitals, corruption in forensic labs… or something deeper? It took us quite a while to unravel this mystery, though the telltale signs were all around us. We had somehow failed to join the dots. But when we did, the only plausible answer left us gasping.

We started analysing the National Crime Records Bureau reports, inadequate but the only available official data — figures of minor rapes along with school dropout rates, child marriage, maternal and child mortality rates, etc.

Each adolescent school dropout from a poverty-stricken background had been subjected to a series of sexual assaults by several men. Their pregnancy was usually detected in a public hospital where they had gone for treatment for a persisting stomach ache or delayed periods. And when the pregnancy was detected, they were bombarded with questions. They blurted out the first name that came to mind.

India is in an embarrassing position as our ratings in the gender inequality index (GII) continue to drop, while all other countries in our region have progressed — Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and now even Pakistan. We are only a notch above Afghanistan.

For the last three years — 2012, 2013 and 2014 — the percentage of minor rapes against total rapes is as follows: in 2012, 36 per cent; 2013, 39 per cent and 2014, 40 per cent.

In 2013, India’s maternal mortality rate (MMR) was 190 deaths per 100,000 live births. MMR for other countries in the region during the same period was: Sri Lanka MMR 29, Nepal 73, Pakistan 170 and Bangladesh 170. So ours is the lowest among these nations.

Our female to male literacy rates for 2013 are 27:56. Sri Lanka has a rate of 72:76; Bhutan 34:34 and Bangladesh 34:41. Despite progress and development we have not been able to close the gender gap for literacy rates.

The fact is that often, after an eve-teasing/stalking incident, or sexual assault, parents pull their daughters out of school, most having just completed primary-level education. Most prefer to marry them off to a boy of their choice.

A study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has revealed that these young adolescent brides are subjected to sexual violence in their marital homes, not only by their husbands, but also other male members of their husband’s family.

Due to their extreme vulnerability, they are not able to confront their abusers, nor take any legal action, despite several laws in place precisely to address this issue. With their low levels of education and low health indicators, these young brides have no other option except to endure the violence or end their lives.

They are also exposed to several other health risks. Since they lack the confidence and agency to exercise their choice regarding family planning, pregnancy-related deaths are known to be the leading cause of mortality among married girls between 15 and 19 years of age.

They are twice more likely to die during childbirth than girls between 20 and 24 years. Girls younger than 15 years are five times more likely to die during childbirth. Infants born to mothers under the age of 18 are 60 per cent more likely to die in their first year than to mothers over the age of 19.

If the children survive, they are more likely to suffer from low birth weight, malnutrition and late physical and cognitive developments. This is one of the reasons why India is still struggling with low maternal mortality and infant (neo-natal) mortality rates.

So what we are left with is a continuum of life cycle-related violence from birth to adulthood. While there are numerous studies about the impact of early marriage on the health of adolescent girls and their infants, there are no studies which link the issue of rape of adolescent girls and sexual violence in marriages to India’s low rating of GII defying all efforts to tackle it.

It is time we placed the adolescent girl in the high risk category of sexual and domestic violence and evolve programmes to tackle this issue in a comprehensive way. Its impact will show in our development indicators.