Why Nirbhaya Homes are shutting the door on rape victims in Kerala

Why Nirbhaya Homes are shutting the door on rape victims in Kerala

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Home, they say, is where the heart is. But for 15-year-old Pooja, home is where trauma was. Unable to bear the trauma, Pooja left her family residence for a Nirbhaya Home, a temporary shelter for victims of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) cases, in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014. Pooja, who was subjected to sexual assault, threats and intimidation by a relative for nearly...

Home, they say, is where the heart is. But for 15-year-old Pooja, home is where trauma was. Unable to bear the trauma, Pooja left her family residence for a Nirbhaya Home, a temporary shelter for victims of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) cases, in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014.

Pooja, who was subjected to sexual assault, threats and intimidation by a relative for nearly two years, says, “Initially, I was too scared to tell anyone about it, including my mother, but he harassed me again and again and I could not hide it any more. So, I told my family.”

While she expected support from her family, what she got instead was blame.

“I left home. I could not live there anymore. In search of a place to live, I reached Nirbhaya Home,” Pooja says. She lived at the shelter home for three years. “They let me continue my studies. I completed high school and joined college.”

Pooja was sent back home when she turned 18. Like many other girls, who are sent back, Pooja too had to drop out of college. “I was scared to go to college. That man was stalking me continuously. Scared, I stopped going to college.”

Pooja’s story is no exception. In the absence of any institutional support, it has come to be a norm for victims of sexual assault in Kerala to go back to the very places – after temporary relief – where their perpetrators live.

The Federal spoke to several sexual assault survivors who are also victims of a systemic failure which has denied them social, legal and institutional support. There are many who were raped and assaulted again after being sent back to their family – the same place where they were subjected to harassment. Unable to bear the pain, few died by suicide.

What are Nirbhaya homes

The word ‘Nirbhaya’ ignites the memories of a gruesome incident that shook the nation in 2012. A girl was brutally gang-raped in the national capital on a moving bus. She was thrown out of the bus along with her male friend who was travelling with her. The victim later died in hospital.

The Nirbhaya shelter home for women and children at Poojappura.

While ‘Nirbhaya’ became a synonym for the bravery and spirit of a survivor of sexual assault, Kerala launched a policy in the same name. But nine years after the state launched one of the most comprehensive policies for rape survivors in the country, it has not only failed in implementing the policy, but also emerged as a model for the rest of the country on how not to treat women subjected to sexual abuse.

The Kerala project, aimed at combating sexual violence and sex trafficking of women and children, was actually at works since March 2012 (even before the 2012 Delhi gangrape incident) under the Department of Social Welfare during the tenure of the UDF government led by Oommen Chandy. The policy was drafted by survivor-turned-activist Sunitha Krishnan, who works against human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Explaining how the policy was drafted, Krishnan says, “I was invited by the then chief minister of Kerala to draft a policy. A team, including eminent activists like Mallika Sarabhai, was constituted. I drafted it, but it ended up as a policy that was badly implemented without understanding the essence of it.”

The Kerala project was mandated to prevent trafficking and sexual abuse. The aim was to rescue and provide a safer environment to survivors of sexual assault, especially minors. By January 2013, the shelter homes were functional in all 14 districts of the state and named after Nirbhaya.

Till 2012, the survivors of sexual assault, including minors, did not have a separate shelter home, but were put in shelter homes for all children in distress who required institutional support. “This practice had many problems. The chances of exploitation and abuse were high when all the children are put together in one institution. That was the reason for bringing up separate homes for survivors of sexual assault,” says PE Usha, who had been the director of Mahila Samakhya, and managed 11 Nirbhaya homes in Kerala.

Mahila Samakhya, a programme launched under central government, was entrusted with the responsibility of running Nirbhaya Homes in eleven out of 14 districts. The rest of the homes were entrusted to private NGOs.

“Running shelter homes for the survivors was only one per cent of the Nirbhaya project,” says Krishnan. The draft policy that was approved by the government focused more on prevention and precaution, rather than rehabilitation. When it came to implementation, the government focused only on the rehabilitation part by opening shelter homes.

As per a government order issued on October 30, 2018, Nirbhaya Homes were to be called ‘Women and Childcare (W and C) homes’. The name change was to rid children of the stigma they faced in schools after being identified as inmates of a ‘home for rape survivors’.

Nine years and a name change since, while the other clauses of the approved project remain on paper, even the shelter homes are coming to a close. In an order dated June 13, 2021, the Kerala government directed all the homes be turned into ‘entry homes’ except for the one in Thrissur.

According to the order, all children in the ‘entry homes’ will be shifted to the ‘model home’ in Thrissur. The order led to a downsizing of the staff. The posts of resident warden, full-time social worker, assistant caretaker and assistant cook were abolished. The security staff was also clipped. “We do not need so many people when the facility is converted to entry homes,” says Sreela Menon, the state coordinator of Nirbhaya Homes.

Why the conversion

The survivors can’t stay for long at an entry home. According to the new norms, they will either be shifted to the ‘model home’ in Thrissur after three months of their arrival or sent back to their families.

Gender right activists say this is only a step towards closing down the facilities. “Downsizing the staff is the first step towards closure. There are a lot of problems in shifting all the children to one home,” says PE Usha.

Usha believes the emotional trauma of a child would only be enhanced if she is kept away from her hometown because children are further scarred when they are kept away from their loved ones. “A child is brought to a shelter home when the atmosphere in her family is not supportive, but still there is someone at home who loves her and wants to visit her. Even if the father, or uncle, or a relative, is an accused, the mother of the child can visit her if the child is staying in their own district,” says Usha.

As the shelter homes have been converted to entry homes, several children are being sent back to their families. Most have no option but to go back. This is a dangerous situation as many faced sexual abuse from family members.

Many girls who were forced to go back home, told The Federal that they were assaulted again. While they could study at the shelter homes, back home, they had no option but to drop out from schools and colleges.

The story of Nita is a telling example of how vulnerable victims are back in their homes. Nita was only 12 when she was brought to the Nirbhaya Home in 2014. She had been raped by her stepfather and was pregnant. Her mother was a nurse and stayed away.

Nita’s maternal aunt took Nita to a shelter home where she lived till she turned 18 and passed Class 12. The Child Welfare Committee decided to send Nita back home as soon as she was 18 and no longer a minor.

Nita’s aunt tried hard to ensure the former stays in the shelter home. She requested the Child Welfare Committee and the District Child Protection officer not to send her back, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Nita had to go back but just after a year of home stay, Nita was brought back to the Nirbhaya Home, sick and depressed. The aunt succumbed to cancer and Nita was raped again by her stepfather.

PE Usha recalls Nita as a girl who was pleasant and smart in studies during her stay at the Nirbhaya Home and healing well from the trauma of sexual violence.

Ammu, a Dalit girl, was raped by her neighbour at the age of 14. The neighbour used to come home when she was alone. One day, when the man was raping the child, people in the locality surrounded the house and alleged that they were engaging in “immoral activity”.

Instead of being rescued, Ammu was beaten. The rapist went scot-free.

Ammu’s mother filed a case both against locals who beat her child and the man who raped her. Ammu was then brought to a shelter home.

Denied support

She completed Class 12 and joined college. However, she was also sent back home as she turned 18. Ammu dropped out of college and never came back. Nobody knows where she is now.

Countless stories reinstate the need for care and support for the victims of sexual abuse and prove how sending them back to their homes exposes them to sexual violence and social ostracisation all over again.

The shelter home, though was only a small part of the whole Nirbhaya policy, had a vital function of providing institutional care and support to girls hailing from vulnerable families.

At present, there are only 80 inmates across all 13 entry homes in Kerala as many were either shifted to the model home or sent back. The model home in Thrissur has 180 survivors who are under 18 years of age.

By talking to activists who worked closely with Nirbhaya homes and survivors, The Federal has learned that rape survivors do not often get proper legal support. In Pooja’s case, the chargesheet was submitted only six years after the FIR was lodged. No hearing has happened so far.

There are also frequent incidents in which the minor survivors turn hostile in court. “People, including their own family members, often put a lot of pressure on them. Many family members do not want to take the pain of fighting the case and force the children to turn hostile. There are cases that are settled by the families by accepting money,” says a police officer, who has investigated several POCSO cases, on the condition of anonymity.

Fatima, a 16-year-old, arrived at one of the shelter homes in 2019. She was raped by a 35-year-old man from her locality. Fatima was sent back home after a few months. Soon after her return, she died by suicide.

“The girl turned hostile in the court. She said the man who raped her wasn’t the one who she had named. Soon after, she died by suicide,” the investigating officer of the the case told The Federal.

The Kerala policy’s focus was more on prevention of human trafficking and child abuse, and creating awareness. Was anything achieved beyond building the Nirbhaya homes?

“No,” says Sreela Menon. “We run homes, there are no other programmes,” she says. While talking to The Federal, she added that the government is considering changing the policy document itself.

According to the 2012 policy, local bodies and Kudumbasree units had a vital role to play in rescuing and rehabilitating victims of sexual violence. The Jagratha Samithis formulated at the local body level were entrusted with the sole responsibility of prevention of trafficking and child abuse, their rescue and rehabilitation. “The concept was that the prevention, rescue and rehabilitation of a child survivor should be the duty of the people living in the locality. This was the whole idea behind constituting Jagratha Samithis,” Krishnan tells The Federal.

So, what happened to the Jagratha Samithis?

“They were not reconstituted after the initial years,” says Menon. The Jagratha Samithis ceased to exist and the Nirbhaya project was confined to the running of shelter homes.

The policy document also recommended constitution of district-level Nirbhaya committees for monitoring the functioning of Jagratha Samithis and periodical reviews. The policy document also suggested that there should be a state-level Nirbhaya Committee under the chairmanship of the chief minister to coordinate and monitor district-level committees with the minister for social justice, chief secretary and secretaries of various concerned departments as members.

The plans to train and sensitise school teachers to promote gender equity, to identify victims and provide psychosocial support to them, providing help desks in schools, the training and education at school level to identify predators, among others have remained just on papers.

“The district-level Nirbhaya committees used to function for the first few years, later it was decided that the committees under the JJ Act were sufficient,” says PE Usha.

Is there a common class/caste denominator for those who end up in shelter homes? Yes.

Not only gender right activists, but even the state coordinator of Nirbhaya project Sreela Menon agrees that there is a commonality of class and caste for the minors reaching the shelter homes after being raped.

“Most of these children are from the lower strata of society and also from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” Menon says.

“Our children are at the receiving end of sexual violence and policy failures,” says Dhanya Raman, a Dalit right activist, who works closely with survivors. According to Dhanya, the decision to shift children from their home districts to the model home in another district will only worsen their psychological distress.

With the homes sending back victims to the same hell holes they escaped from, rape survivors are facing not just stigma but also repeated rape trauma so acute that they are giving up on life itself.

(Names of all victims in the story have been changed.)


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