Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) strongly condemns the brutal systemic and systematic patterns of abuse, harassment and violence meted out to residents of Government institutions and shelters in Bihar. Furthermore, WSS stands in solidarity with all victims of State sponsored violence, families of the survivors and all those involved in exposing this long running racket in Bihar.
In early June 2018, the entire country was shocked when findings of a TISS social audit of government run shelter homes for the vulnerable revealed patterns of gross sexual violence, abuse and neglect. In particular, the media chose to focus on the testimonies of residents of a shelter home in Muzaffarpur where minor girls, some as young as 8 and 10, reported cases of horrific sexual violence. Many of these media reports, more sensational than sensitive zeroed in on a single home, in spite of the TISS report discussing similar instances of sexual assault in over 6 homes and other forms of abuse and neglect in homes across the state. The danger with this kind of reporting is that it bolsters the illusion that sexual violence within government institutions are one-off incidents as opposed to a systemic pattern in which shelter homes are turned into hubs of abuse and assault. Recent media reports tell us that two girls at the Aasra shelter at Nepali Nagar, Patna, were reported dead under mysterious circumstances and it is being suspected that they were probably the same girls who had been shifted from the Muzaffarpur home after the news of the rapes broke.
While the sexual violence against minor girls is truly horrific and warrants all the attention it is getting, it is important to take into account institutional violence that goes beyond the sexual. Any violation that takes away an individual’s right to dignity is a serious concern and we strongly condemn the civil society organizations and government institutions that allowed and even encouraged such acts. Narratives of different kinds of abuse, neglect, deprivation, and malnutrition abound in the TISS social audit report including homes being unable to provide basic facilities of safe lodging, regular meals or even a toilet with a latch, staff locking up and beating children in homes, staff morally policing and verbally abusing female residents to the point where one resident was pushed to commit suicide, lack of psychological support services to residents, lack of any support services for persons with disability etc.
These violations of dignity and bodily integrity must be understood in the larger socio-economic-political context. Since the early 1990s, the rising trend of NGO-isation has meant large sums of money have been pumped into civil society in the name of ‘development’, allowing the state to offload the provision of welfare services to private actors. In a scramble to occupy the gap left by the retreating State, NGOs fight to procure state funding; encouraging a trend that prioritizes accountability towards their funders, aka the State, over the people they work with. As a result, vulnerable lives of children, women, survivors of domestic violence, the elderly and the disabled are turned into mere numbers, reduced to targets to be met while their rehabilitation/ reintegration is seen as only a procedural and bureaucratic process. Any State that allows this kind of systematic dehumanizing of individuals is deeply rooted in brahmanical patriarchy, silently waging a war against women, children and the most vulnerable sections of society. In this case, many girls’ bodies were reduced to disposable sexual labour for the use of dominant classes.
The media reports seem to have zeroed in on Brajesh Thakur owner of the NGO ‘Seva Sankalp’ that ran Muzaffarpur shelters as the main accused in the rape of 34 minor girls residing at his shelter home. While Brajesh Thakur should definitely be tried and punished for his crimes, this focus on the individual is limited in two ways. Firstly, as mentioned earlier in the statement, the focus on one individual/one home runs the risk of eclipsing other instances of neglect and consequently glosses over the institutional nature of the violence. Secondly, it ends up painting the picture of the individual abuser as a monster, as inhuman, as an aberration from the regular or the human. This makes it easier to ignore the fact that sexual violence is not a result of a ‘few bad apples’ but a culture that teaches cis-men to feel entitled to sexual favours, to use sex as a way to wield power over the oppressed; a culture fuelled by the happy marriage of patriarchy and caste; a culture that pervades all aspects of our everyday lives, including the state and the very mechanisms that claims to protect us from such violations.
The police, too, have been dragging their feet in this case. It took over four months after the submission of the TISS report for a formal complaint to be lodged against all the accused. It took the Bihar Department of Social Welfare two weeks after the lodging of the formal complaint to seal the Muzaffarpur shelter home and rescue 46 minor girls. Neither has any action has been taken against the other homes till date, nor have adequate monitoring structures being set up in those places. 16 girls and women from one of the shelter homes run by Brajesh Thakur are missing and neither the police, nor the State seem to be doing much to recover them. There were delays in the medical examinations of the rescued girls and they were encouraged not to use names in their testimony before the magistrate. This appalling behavior just goes to show the extent to which the state, its organs and civil society collude to perpetuate misogynist rape culture. It is cruel irony when the state – the same entity that claims to be the custodian of it’s most marginalized citizens, their safety and well-being, is also the one that violates them over and over again.
Finally, as citizens who oppose gender-based and sexual violence, we urge all fellow travellers with a conscience to see women and girls outside thema/beti/behen/bahu
We demand that:
1. All survivors of abuse should be moved out of the original site of violence to High Court monitored safe institutions immediately.
2. All accused should be tried in fast track courts to ensure rigorous punishment and timely justice. The sudden death of the two girls in the Patna shelter should be enquired into, immediately and all shelter homes should be monitored more stringently by the CWC and the Deptt. Of Social Welfare, with clear accountabilities and penalties drawn out.
3. Sensitive psychological support/counseling services and free legal aid services for survivors must be provided by the State Social Welfare Department.
4. The Social Welfare department and police should recover the girl gone missing from the Madhubani Shelter Home, 11 women from another shelter home run by Brajesh Thakur and 1 woman missing from Shanti Kutir home in Muzaffarpur immediately.
5. The Deptt. should ensure spending of 1% of its budget on transparency and accountability initiatives including social audits. Social audits of all homes should be regularly conducted as per the CAG Social Audit standards and the August 2017 Supreme Court Judgement on Social Audits.
6. Information on inmates living in shelter homes, reasons for their entry and exit and details of their rehabilitation should be maintained by the CWC and other monitoring bodies of the Social Welfare Deptt. More transparency must be ensured in the functionality of the CWC, District Child Protection Unit and the District Level Monitoring Committees. The selection process, budget and spending of NGOs that run shelter homes, observation homes and short stay homes should be made public.
- The dilutions in rape laws, other sexual harassment laws and the SC-ST POA Act and their implementation and sentencing need to be prevented immediately and these laws should be enforced effectively and in fact, strengthened.
- In order to address gender-based violence in a more holistic way, it is crucial that the state provide institutional support for transgender persons as suggested in the NALSA judgement of Supreme Court, 2014, because like women, trans* persons are also extremely vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.