Majlis Team, Mumbai
Sometime around August, 2012* newspapers reported that a 14 year old girl was raped. The girl was 8 months pregnant and had been admitted to hospital. The rapist, a Muslim youth, was arrested. We decided to follow up the case and so approached the concerned hospital but were informed that the girl had been discharged. We then contacted the local police station who directed us to the girl’s home.
Our first image of Monica was that of a very pregnant, chirpy and vivacious teenager. She was at home chatting with some friends around her own age. Her mother was away at work. Monica lives on the attic of a hutment in the fisherman’s colony, situated in one of the posh areas of South Mumbai. When we enquired about the incident she told us that Iqbal was her boyfriend and that they were to be married. According to her, there was some misunderstanding and Iqbal would be released soon. She seemed quite relaxed and oblivious of the gravity of the situation. Her only request was for us to help her meet Iqbal in the Arthur Road jail where he was lodged.
We introduced our work on socio legal support and as she grew comfortable she revealed her story. Monica’s father had abandoned them and was living with another woman in a slum nearby. Her mother worked a 12 hour shift as a private helper-nurse. Her father continued to visit their place in a drunken state. He would beat up her mother and demand money and sex from her. In her growing up years, Monica had been traumatized by these recurring incidents of violence.
Initially Monica attended a local municipal school but after school hours she had to fend for herself till her mother returned from work. Monica couldn’t cope and so she dropped out of school. She would then spend the entire day with her friends who were also school drop outs.
Soon Monica got into a relationship with Iqbal aged 20. He lived in a nearby slum and worked as a driver earning Rs.15,000 per month. Iqbal would visit Monica at home when her mother was away at work. It was only when Monica visited a public hospital with stomach pains that she realized she was five months pregnant. She had crossed the permissible period for abortion and hence had no choice but to continue with the pregnancy.
Monica’s mother was very upset. She approached Iqbal’s family and proposed marriage. However Iqbal’s family rejected the proposal of marriage of their son to a lowly Christian girl. But Monica was confident of her relationship and convinced her mother that in due course of time Iqbal would surely marry her. Her mother had no choice but to bide time.
As her pregnancy advanced, Monica continued to suffer from acute abdominal pain. It was thus in her eighth month Monica again approached another public hospital. At the registration counter, Monica was asked routine questions about her age and marital status. On realizing that she was 14 and unmarried, the hospital, without her knowledge, contacted the local police and all hell broke loose!
When the police arrived Monica’s mother tried desperately to convince them that they were in a relationship and were to be married soon. But the doctors insisted that it was a case of statutory rape (as Monica was below the age of consent). The police and doctors compelled her to file a criminal complaint.
Iqbal was arrested. The news was splashed in local newspapers and cable networks. Iqbal was immediately sacked from his job. He was the sole earning member of his family, so the family was furious with Monica and her mother and blamed them for his misfortune.
Monica pleaded with us to help her meet Iqbal in jail. We tried counseling her and placed various options before her. Give the baby up for abortion, pursue her studies. We suggested her moving to a shelter so that she could distance herself from the situation and reflect and explore her options. Her mother liked the idea, but Monica was not interested. Marriage was the only reality for her. Every time there was a pause in the conversation, she kept asking whether we will help her to meet Iqbal in jail. She had even come with cooked food to take for him. However the jail authorities informed us that only blood relatives were allowed to meet under trials. The fact that she was carrying his blood in her stomach, did not matter at this juncture!
Then started the legal rigmarole. Iqbal’s family hired an expensive lawyer. Under his advice Monica personally appeared before the judge to plead for the release of Iqbal. They promised to arrange her marriage as soon as he was released. But this strategy did not work and even bail was not granted, so Iqbal remained in judicial custody. Monica attended court on each date to have a brief interaction with Iqbal despite her advanced pregnancy and health issues, but every time the bail application was rejected, his family grew more antagonistic towards Monica.
After several bail applications were rejected, the lawyer advised Monica to stop contacting us as they feared that being a women’s rights organisation our only interest would be to secure a conviction. But Monica’s mother kept in touch. Somehow she felt that we could mediate between the police, the court and Iqbal’s family to secure the future of her daughter.
As the charge sheet was getting filed, Monica delivered a baby girl. The trial started four months later. Monica came to court carrying her tiny daughter in her arms, both fully covered in a Hijab! Perhaps, she thought, this would give her a semblance of respectability within the court environment or that by accepting the cultural norms of Iqbal’s family she would gain acceptability.
The trial concluded within two hearings. There was nothing much to decide. Monica turned hostile and deposed on oath that she does not know Iqbal, that it was a case of mistaken identity by the police. Everyone cooperated – the Investigating Officer, the woman public prosecutor, the court staff, and even the judge herself! Iqbal was acquitted. We have not been able to contact Monica or her mother thereafter. We do not know whether Iqbal actually married her.
This is a case where a young girl with multiple levels of marginalization tries to find a meaningful resolution on her own terms. She is then caught in a web of state laws and its moral codes. Young girls in consensual relationships, who accidentally get caught in this legal web will have no other option but to turn hostile in court.
More recently, the situation of girls like Monica has been rendered even more precarious. The recently enacted Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 prohibits all sexual activity for children below 18, as consent of children is not recognised. It also introduced the provision of mandatory reporting, hence non reporting of sexual activity of children below the age of 18 has been now rendered an offence.
The Act aims to deal with child marriage, rape and trafficking of children and is based on the underlying premise that a young girl is incapable of giving valid consent. However these same girl are routinely exposed to discrimination, vulnerabilities and a range of exploitations. Women’s groups appealed to protect the interest of these children and campaigned, not to criminalise normal sexual exploration during growing up years. But in the fight with a conservative and regressive moral brigade, we lost.
When will state and civil society begin to take responsibility and address marginalities of poor young girls rather than sitting on a moral high ground, and criminalizing its consequences? What is the future that awaits these young girls?
*The names of both the survivor and the accused as well as the month in which the newspaper report appeared, have been changed to protect the identity.