Sexual Violence:
Is There a ‘Safe’ Space?

With over 140 billion rupees at their disposal, India’s federal and state governments have failed to keep their shelter homes safe for women.

The lives of many underprivileged young girls end due to male violence. What is worse is that it happens inside a space that is meant to protect them. State-sanctioned shelters that are supposed to be a safe haven for the disadvantaged are turning into an epicentre for pedophilic, sexual violence. And there isn’t enough outrage over this.

The shocking news about 57 minor girls who tested positive for COVID-19 at a state-run children’s shelter in northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Kanpur district created a bit of a stir, but we soon went back to our first world problems and the story died.

In this Kanpur case, seven of the 57 girls were found to be pregnant and one was HIV positive. Four of them were victims of offences under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, and the remaining three were allegedly abducted or forced to marry. While the officials got suspended for not discharging duties properly, Kanpur District Probation Officer (DPO) Ajit Kumar said that reports had been circulated without any authorised statement. They were also quick to file a police complaint against people spreading such information.

While they admitted to there being positive COVID cases, the district administration clarified that five girls among them who were brought in at the recommendations of the child welfare committees were recorded as pregnant at the time of arrival.

Manoj Kumar Rai, the Director at the Women and Child Development (WCD) Department, said that at the 67 centres run by the district, 3,963 inmates were living against the capacity of 3,675. Among them were 257 women and girls who were victims of sexual crimes, and 20 of them were pregnant.

This is not an isolated case, of course. And the over capacity of state-sanctioned shelters is a known tragedy. Some of them appear to have despicable conditions, poor sanitation and unhygienic surroundings; at times like pandemic, this concoction seems like a death wish.

But nothing is more devious than the arrogance of men who feel entitled to exploit the women who come to the shelter after escaping something sinister. While the Kanpur DPO might have filed a police complaint against the miscreants spreading wrong information, a look at past cases gives us enough evidence to suspect foul play.

Some of the Many Cases

A majority of the cases never see the light of day, and given that the justice system often ends up being complicit, but here are some known cases that happened not so long ago:

May 2018 – Muzaffarpur, Bihar

So far, it has been confirmed that 34 girls between the ages of seven and 17 were raped. On June 14, 2018, Bihar’s Ministry of WCD sealed the Muzaffarpur shelter home and rescued 46 minor girls. Bihar Governor Satyapal Malik suspended six Assistant Directors of State Welfare Department for negligence in their duty and for the delay in taking action after a social audit report by Tata Institute of Social Sciences in  August 5, 2018.

August 2018 – Deoria, Uttar Pradesh

A 10-year-old escaped from the home, reached a women police station to complain about the life inside the shelter. The supervisor of the shelter home, Girija Tripathi, her husband Mohan Tripathi and superintendent Kanchalata, were arrested, while the District Magistrate Sujit Kumar was transferred for negligence. The escaped girl had been ill-treated at the shelter home for the past three years and made to work as a “servant.” Some of the older inmates, aged 15 to 18, were being sexually exploited. According to her, the inmates would be picked up at night and dropped at the shelter home the following morning. Despite warnings and a cancelled registration, this shelter was running illegally, and was a front for many sexually abusive acts.

August 2018 – Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh

Women were reported missing from two shelter homes in Pratapgarh. Jagrati Shelter Home in Ashtbhuja Nagar, run by the former district chief of the woman front of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rama Mishra, was inspected. District magistrate Shambhu Kumar found that 15 women were registered but only one woman was present there, officials said. The caretaker of this home, Neha Praveen, said they were not getting any funding and the shelter was being run with their personal expenses.

May 2017 – Delhi

At least seven inmates were forced to stay in the Nirmal Chaya shelter home and undergo abortion. They were also beaten when they resisted. “I was pregnant but was forced to undergo abortion. They (staff) promised me that I will be allowed to go to my friend but I am still being forced to stay here. I request that either I be allowed to go to my friend or allowed to move to another home,” one of the inmate’s letter read. They faced repeated beatings and if they dared to make the abuse known to anyone outside, they were taken to the medical room and physically abused. Some of the inmates also alleged being forcefully given chemicals to make them appear older than their actual age.

Where Has all the Money Gone?

Given the sexual exploitation and pitiable living conditions of these women, I was wondering about the finances set aside for building, managing and the upkeep of said shelters. It is remarkable how much information is available on government websites if only we would look! These are pages and pages of documentation that essentially confirm an exorbitant amount of funding set aside per state for the schemes to protect women.

Shelter homes in India are run under the Swadhar Greh Scheme, set up by the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of WCD, respectively in 1969 and 2001 (with some modifications in 2015). It focuses on victims of difficult circumstances who are in need of institutional support and women in need of rehabilitation so that they could lead their lives with dignity. The scheme was meant to provide shelter, food, clothing and health as well as economic and social security for these women.

India has a total of 551 shelter homes under the scheme. This is a sub-scheme of the federally sponsored umbrella scheme, “Protection & Empowerment of Women,” with predetermined cost sharing between the centre and states/union territories. The federal contribution has been calculated as 60:40 to the state, except north-eastern states and Himalayan states where it is 90:10.

If we consider the state of Uttar Pradesh (given the avalanche of cases), the Ministry of WCD set aside 43 million rupees (43,060,078 rupees to be exact) as the first instalment to the state as grants-in-aid to implement the Swadhar Greh Scheme. This grant is subject to a half year review with separate accounts as maintained by the state, along with a submission of a  Statement of Expenditure and Utilisation certificate indicating the state share and a physical progress report. There is no information on the Ministry of WCD website on whether there is due diligence in following said protocols.

The scheme also emphasises on the limit of 30 inmates per shelter, but if the Kanpur case is any evidence, there is no verification done by the ministry to ensure the shelters aren’t overcrowded – not even now during the pandemic, when the numbers are peaking in crowded spaces. The scheme is very thorough in that it takes into account every potential expenditure, which has been included in the budget. It allows for the state-sanctioned representative to construct, or pay rent to make such a shelter service available for women. It also demands that all staff members, aside from the security personnel, be women. There is no information on the background of the aforementioned shelters where such sexual violence cases were filed, whether they in fact duly followed these protocols. 

The state of Uttar Pradesh claims to have 72 shelters under the scheme, and the website categorically mentions the shelters per city. According to this interactive database, put together by the Ministry of WCD, there are no shelters listed in Kanpur. The owner of the Pratapgarh shelter, Neha Praveen, claims to have received no external funding. 

To err on the side of caution, even if we believe that this is a clerical error, and not the absence of shelters, how do the authorities hope to get this information, with a clunky old website, to women that are in dire need?

An Unimplemented Scheme

Some other observations based on the information furnished in the government portal is that there are no shelters in the entire state of Meghalaya in the north-east, and while the funding has been set aside to cater to every district within the state, many states have no shelters in so many of their major cities.

The Swadhar Greh Scheme claims to provide shelter and rehabilitation to:

  • women deserted and without any social and economic support;
  • women survivors of natural disasters rendered homeless;
  • women prisoners released from jail and without family, social and economic support;
  • women victims of domestic violence, family tension or discord;
  • trafficked women/girls rescued from brothels or places of exploitation; and
  • women affected by HIV/AIDS with no social or economic support.

Poverty, lack of education and sensitisation prevent a vast majority of women from making use of such facilities to begin with. And in that, to subject these women to further abuse must be regarded with profound denigration.

The country has seen an enormous spike in cases of domestic violence. In May, two Supreme Court advocates urged the National Commission for Women and the Ministry of WCD to set up special shelters for women who could become more vulnerable to domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown. I wonder if they were aware of the existing schemes with huge sums of money that authorities don’t seem to be accountable for? What is the use of more shelters if we can’t manage to make existing ones safe for the inmates? And where would women go if authorities inside such shelters are the reasons for abuse?

Shaken by cases of sexual violence in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, former Union Minister of WCD Menaka Gandhi had demanded for verification of all homes in the states. She even suggested using part of the “Nirbhaya Fund,” a 100-billion-rupee corpus announced by the federal government in its 2013 Union Budget, after the 2012 gangrape in Delhi, to help protect the dignity and to ensure safety of women. Yet, the state of women in Kanpur’s shelters remains just as horrifying.

A Parliamentary committee concluded in March that only 35 percent of the Nirbhaya Fund had been utilised across ministries. Of the roughly 74 billion rupees allocated, the ministries and departments had spent only around 26.4 billion rupees on 32 different schemes.

There are resources available to do something worthwhile for women and girl children, but only on paper, it seems. The justice system fails its women over and over. We urgently need to create a sustained agitation over matters of marginalised women’s safety.

Meanwhile, whether it is the crude apathy to women’s plight, or the greed to swindle money, it can be concluded that women are not safe in this country, not even in the confines of “safety shelters.”