The Delhi Police last week told the Delhi High Court that they have arrested a guard of a government-run children’s home in Alipur for allegedly sodomising a seven-year-old HIV positive boy. The court had ordered a suo motu enquiry into the incident after media reports. The boy was brought to the home three years ago by an NGO after his mother died of AIDS. His stepfather was lodged in Tihar jail for raping his daughter.
This is just one of the blood-curdling incidents of child sex abuse in the children’s homes set up for protection of children under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act of 2000. It supports a recent report released by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) which said that an overwhelming majority of cases of child rape and sexual assault are taking place within the confines of juvenile justice homes set up under the law enacted for protection of children in conflict with law.
While a few of these homes are being run by the Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD), many unregistered homes are being run by private groups. Of the 39 emblematic cases of systematic and often repeated sexual assault on children in juvenile justice homes analysed from across the country by ACHR, 11 were reported from juvenile justice homes run or aided by the government. In every one of these cases, boys and girls have been raped, sodomised and sexually abused apart from being forced to work and live in what the report terms “inhuman conditions”. In every one of the recorded cases, the abuser is someone working with the institution—a manager, a member of the staff. There was a case from Bangalore in which the offender was a member of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC).
It is clear that the juvenile justice homes, established to provide care and protection as well as re-integration, rehabilitation and restoration of the juveniles in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection, have become India’s hell holes. It matters little whether these homes are situated in the national capital Delhi or in the mofussil towns.
The rub is that none of this comes to public knowledge in the normal course because the conditions in these homes are not regularly monitored, and even if there is an inspection, the children are afraid to speak up fearing further abuse. The atrocities come to light only when children either manage to escape or somehow communicate with an outsider. That these children are only too anxious to run out of these protection homes itself speaks volumes about the manner in which they are run. Between 2005 and 2011, 1,089 children under 14 years were found missing from 34 children’s homes in Karnataka. In West Bengal, 40 minor girls ran away from a government-run home last year. The fact that they did not return only suggests that they were either trafficked or they preferred to live in the unprotected world outside.
A situation in which the institutions created for protection of child rights themselves take on a depredatory role turn in unacceptable in any civilised society. Unfortunately, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights and the Child Welfare Committees intervene only after crimes are reported, but there are no preventive mechanisms or regular inspections.
Most state governments have not formed inspection committees which are mandated to inspect the juvenile justice homes and report at least once in every three months. Though the Ministry of Women and Child Development approves and funds projects for all the states and Union Territories under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme since 2010, it has never raised the issue of inspection committees with them.
It is time the entire system of state institutions meant to take care of abandoned children or children in conflict with law was overhauled. An elaborate system of checks and balances by members of the civil society should be put in place to ensure that state officials entrusted with custody of these children do their job and strong punitive action should be taken in cases of gross negligence or wilful default. Rather than the rhetoric of condemnation that one hears every day, the government needs to take simple and effective steps that will ensure that the children in these homes are protected rather than preyed upon by their assigned protectors.