In the 241 FIRs filed in Mumbai between March 2014 and ’15, 12% cases involved rapes by fathers and stepfathers, while rapes by strangers in public places were 3%. Yet our discussion on girl safety revolves around street lighting and CCTV cameras.
Last week, Mumbai Police arrested a 45-year-old man for raping his daughter for six years since she was seven. The father, a fruit vendor, had earlier sexually assaulted his 17-year-old daughter.
The victim, who is now 13 and a student of class seven, decided to speak up after attending a counselling session on child abuse in her school. In her letter to the class teacher, she wrote, “My father raped me and my mother is not helping.”
Rape has been on our mind since December 2012. We’ve discussed it, protested against it, demanded more stringent laws and even got them. But the focus, the discourse and the concern has been restricted to rape by strangers. We don’t take to the streets when a girl accuses her own father of rape over several years because this threatens to shake the very foundation of our society, the unit held most sacred — the family.
A patriarchal society has to protect the patriarch, whatever the cost. That’s why rape or sexual assault within the family, by a father, is a sure shot conversation killer. Bring it up anywhere and a hush descends, discomfort rises. It’s a story India doesn’t want to hear. But don’t be fooled by the silence around it. It doesn’t mean that these incidents are rare. The silence is a conspiracy — to protect the alleged rakshaks even if they are, in reality, bhakshaks.
As part of the Rahat survivor support programme of Majlis, we were present when 16-year-old Nusrat came to court for her deposition in a hijab and under the strict vigil of a matronly aunt. With her eyes downcast, she told the court that she had filed a false case of sexual abuse against her father.
The case had been filed about a year ago, after Nusrat had asked her boyfriend to marry her. She wanted him to save her from abuse by her father or, she had said, she would commit suicide. Her boyfriend turned out to be a sensible guy and instead of eloping took her to the nearest police station. The relatives were called. They prevailed upon Nusrat not to press charges. But she remained firm. Medical examination revealed healed injuries on her private parts. And seeing her depressed state, the police hospital at Nagpada referred her to JJ Hospital for further treatment and counselling.
But on the day of her deposition, it was a changed scenario. Her father, a tailor and the sole breadwinner of a family of seven siblings and a bedridden mother, had been in jail for the last one year. Under pressure from the community, the investigations were slack. Nusrat was not produced before the child welfare committee nor shifted to a safe shelter. Her statement was not recorded by a magistrate under Section 164 of Code of Criminal Procedure, so it could not be used as evidence. There was nothing except the FIR, the medical and forensic reports and the report of the counsellor. In her FIR, Nusrat had stated that her father had also abused her elder sister, who was quietly married off when she became pregnant.
When the public prosecutor asked Nusrat why she was in court, she replied, “Abbu ko churaane ko aayi hoon”. She maintained that the police had lodged a false complaint. Her depression, she said, was because of the love affair.
The judge held that the reference in her letters — asking her boyfriend to take her away as “anything could happen to her” — could be about the love affair and not necessarily about sexual abuse by her father. Regarding the injuries, the judge commented that the girl had made a bold admission — that she was in a premarital sexual relationship.
The father was acquitted and sent off home. Nusrat and her four younger siblings probably continue to endure the trauma and indignity of abuse as the system has no remedy for them.
There have been many cases where adolescent girls are browbeaten into falsely admitting immorality to save their father.
Though 18-year-old Asmita’s case was similar to Nusrat’s, and she too had come to court to retract, it had a positive ending — she has just secured 85 per cent marks in her diploma course in mechanical engineering and is all set to fulfil her dream of becoming an engineer!
When Asmita was six, she saw her father raping her elder sister. She started screaming. But her mother dragged her into the kitchen and beat her into silence. According to her, her mother was more protective towards her than she had been towards her sister.
Yet, her abuse began at the age of 12. But one day, during her exams, when she returned home, her father who had been watching blue films, dragged her into his room, pushed her on to the bed and started disrobing her. That day Asmita pushed him away with all her might, and ran to her mother and both of them left home and took shelter in her elder sister’s home in the suburbs. The next day the father tracked them down, dragged the mother but warned Asmita never to return.
Desperate about not being able to appear for her exams, Asmita went straight to the police station and filed a complaint. Her father, who has a small business, was arrested. Asmita’s sister and mother were happy that he was finally being punished, but two days later, when television cameras landed on their doorstep, the equation changed. The father’s lawyer prepared an affidavit alleging that Asmita had filed a false case because her father had shouted at her. His bail was rejected and the case came up for trial within a year.
When the public prosecutor pointed out the discrepancies between her FIR and the affidavit and sought an explanation, Asmita broke down. An interventionist judge cleared the court, asked our support person to calm her down and explain to her that if she tells the truth, the judge will help her. Asmita informed the judge that the FIR was true. She narrated that her mother is a victim of domestic violence, and that she had witnessed her father raping her elder sister and that her abuse started when she was around 12-years-old.
When her mother came to know of her deposition, she was furious. She pulled off Asmita’s gold chain, her purse and mobile phone and asked her never to come home. The judge asked whether she feared going back home, to which Asmita nodded in the affirmative, amidst sobs. An order was passed to shift her to the government shelter home and provide police protection.
The case ended in conviction but since the birth certificate was manipulated, the defence lawyer argued that Asmita was not a minor when the FIR was lodged. So the conviction was under a lesser provision of Indian Penal Code Section 354 — violating modesty — and awarded two years punishment and Rs 25,000 as fine to be paid to her. The father appealed and secured bail after about a year of imprisonment.
So, today, the father is back at home while Asmita is without a home and a family. If it weren’t for the support and intervention of a sensitive judge, this case too would have fallen by the wayside and labelled as a “false case”.
The question before us is whether these are stray incidents or routine occurrences. Statistics reveal that such cases far outnumber violent assaults by strangers. In the 241 FIRs filed in Mumbai between March 1, 2014, and March 31, 2015, around 12 per cent cases involved rapes by fathers and stepfathers, while rapes by strangers in public places were a mere 3 per cent. Yet our discussion about making girls safe revolves around street lighting and CCTV cameras in public places!
If more girls are being raped and abused in the safety of their own homes, by their own fathers, relatives or acquaintances, it’s clear that there’s a desperate need for intervention by our policymakers, high-level committees on status of women, and for the judiciary to treat such rape cases differently. There is also need for concerned citizens to rethink their stock demand of death penalty for rapists after every gruesome case that comes to light. No daughter will come forward if she knows that her father will hang.
The writer is a women’s rights lawyer