A victim of child sexual abuse who is potentially exposed to serious harm – her mother had offered her to a rich planter when she was only 12, her alcoholic father had frequently bullied her to take back her complaint, it is also on record that men in power had threatened her with dire consequences and the girl, perhaps unable to cope with the insanity all around, had attempted suicide at least twice – has been released from the Nirbhaya shelter in Thiruvananthapuram on May 27 without ensuring her safety outside.
Reason: the girl has turned 18 on May 20 and, therefore, had lost her right to be called a child any more.
This is a high profile case in which the victim has accused the personal staff of Kerala's power minister M M Mani of coercing her to withdraw her complaint.
The Thiruvananthapuram Child Welfare Committee (CWC), which is aware of the pressures the victim had been subjected to, has sent the girl along with her brother, who is all of 20. Inexcusably, while allowing the girl's release, the CWC has not made sure that the brother is capable of providing her protection.
The CWC seems to have taken the brother's claims at face value, without independent verification. “He said he was working and has enough income to take care of his sister,” said advocate N Sunanda, the district CWC chairperson.
But does the CWC has any idea what his work is. “That we don't know,” the chairperson told Onmanorama. The CWC seems to have left things to chance. “We have asked the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) supervisor to ensure that the residence of the brother is safe for the girl. The supervisor will do the necessary follow-up and if we are given any negative reports there are provisions in the Juvenile Justice Rules to take back the custody of the girl,” Sunanda said.
The CWC chairperson also said that the girl herself wanted to be out of the Nirbhaya home. “She said she did not want to continue in the institution. She even said she might commit suicide,” Sunanda said. (It is another matter that the girl had attempted suicide while she was outside the home. Even if the girl had said she wanted to leave, it is debatable whether an emotionally fragile victim's words should be accepted without question. It is also a fact that the girl, whenever she was taken out, had called up Nirbhaya authorities to take her back.)
“What's more, the social worker who was present when the decision was made never told us that the girl should not be released,” the chairperson said.
“This is not true,” said P E Usha, the state project director of Mahila Samakhya, which runs eight of the state's 11 Nirbhaya homes, including the one in Kerala's capital city. “We were told (on May 27) that the CWC wanted to talk to the girl. We had no idea that there were plans to release the girl. The very evening itself the order was issued to release her along with her brother without asking for a report from us. It is also a lie that the social worker was present when the CWC talked to the girl,” Usha said.
There is yet another reason the CWC cites to justify the decision to send the girl with her brother. “It was this boy who first reported the abuse to the authorities. So why should we suspect him,” the CWC chairperson said.
Usha agreed that it was the brother who first reported the abuse but still described him as highly unreliable. “He is still a small boy and has found himself in very bad circumstances. He can be easily influenced,” she said. Usha suspects that the autorickshaw the brother now possesses was gifted to him by the prime accused. The CWC has not verified this.
Once in 2017, the girl was sent with the boy and it was a catastrophe. She was released on the condition that she would be put in a school. The brother had even produced the application of a school. Later, when the Idukki collector asked the father to produce the girl, he said that the child was in school and would be produced later.
A ground check revealed that the girl was not in the school that the father had said. “She was instead put in another school that was chosen by the accused, the rich planter. The collector immediately ordered that the girl be rescued,” Usha said. “This had also made it clear that the brother cannot be relied upon,” she added.
It was during this period, when the Idukki CWC thought it was fine to sent the girl with her brother, that the girl had attempted suicide. “It was found that the girl was irregular in school. Also, there were two long stretches of absence separated by a month. A deeper probe revealed that the girl had attempted suicide twice, once by cutting her wrists (she had 13 stitches) and then by overdose of pills,” Usha said.
A more shocking truth was also revealed. All through this torment, the main accused, the planter, was funding the family, including the girl's education. Usha feels that this might have deeply wounded the self-respect of the girl, causing her to slash her wrists so furiously that 13 stitches had to be made. “There is nothing to suggest that the girl will not be at the mercy of the accused once again,” Usha said.
The girl was taken out of the Home even after the incident. Last year, the father wanted the CWC to release his daughter for 21 days to attend the marriage of his elder daughter. He secured consent, but only for seven days. At home, the victim came across the man who had raped her. She said in her written complaint to the Kottayam SP that the man pulled her by her wrists and threatened with dire consequences if she did not retract her complaint.
“The girl's childhood had been a nightmare,” said advocate J Sandhya who had fought a legal battle to get the girl back in Nirbhaya after she was released to her brother by the Idukki CWC in 2017. “When she was in eighth standard she was called out of her class by her mother to be presented to the planter,” Sandhya said. “I remember she telling me that she used to run out of the house the moment she could sense the planter's car far away,” she added.
The girl's father, an alcoholic who was not aware of the abuse initially, was reportedly bought off by the main accused. The father was jailed for threatening his daughter right in front of the magistrate, when she went to record her statement under Section 164 of IPC. He had been arrested and remanded in custody by the Ponkunnam police. Both the father and mother, who is the second accused in the case, are now out on bail.
Truth is, the girl was not the only one in the household to be abused by the planter with the help of the mother. Her elder sister, too, was. The abuse began at the same time, while one was 14 and the other was 12. However, one was not aware that the other was also being abused. The suffering of both the girls came to light only after the brother intimated the police of the sordid goings on. The sisters were brought to Nirbhaya Home in Idukki in December 2015.
Advocate Sandhya said it was unfortunate that victims of sexual abuse were sent out of shelter homes without a rehabilitation plan.