A seven-year-old was the youngest of 34 girls who were raped at a children’s shelter in India’s Bihar state, in a case that has led to national anger over the management of care homes for the most vulnerable members of society.
A total of 44 children lived at Seva Sankalp Samiti, a short-stay home for girls who had run away from their families or been rescued from railway stations or the streets.
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The oldest victim was 18 years old.
At least 10 people have been arrested so far, including the head of the shelter, Brajesh Thakur, who denies the accusations against him. One of the accused has absconded, police said.
The girls’ testimonies were heard on July 27 at a special court for cases related to India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The POCSO law was amended in April to introduce the death penalty for the rape of children younger than 12 years old.
The abuse at Seva Sankalp Samiti came to light after a government-commissioned report in April into Bihar’s 110 NGOs by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The report found “grave instances of violence” at the shelter and recommended a prompt investigation.
The vast majority of allegations have been made against Thakur, who is said to have led the abuse, stripping the girls naked, beating them with sticks and belts and injecting them with sedatives so that he and others could sexually assault them.
Beaten, drugged, raped, scalded with hot water
The girls’ statements to police paint a grim picture of a pattern of abuse.
The seven-year-old child told police she was beaten regularly by Brajesh, whom the girls referred to as “hunterwala uncle”, or the uncle with the whip.
A 10-year old girl said she would wake in the morning to find her clothes strewn on the floor after being drugged in the night, and complained of a soreness between her legs.
One girl said she was regularly stripped naked, taken to the terrace and beaten with a stick.
Another said her abuser threw hot water over her to force her to take drugs that other girls said made them sleepy.
When one girl tried to push back against the abuse, she was starved for days and later apologised for resisting.
Some were hit while trying to reject rape, according to the girls’ statements to police.
They recounted their tales of horror to me. This is a terrible tragedy. The girls said to me, 'We will get education, we will become police officers, high ranking officers and we will make them suffer, those who made us suffer'.
It is not clear when the abuse took place, or for how long, but the girls said sexual assault was routine during their stay. Some lived at the home for up to three years.
“The girls had cut themselves on their hands with glass in frustration and despair during this cycle of abuse,” said a spokesperson at Bihar women’s commission, whose members visited the girls on Saturday, and are preparing a report for the government.
The shelter was closed last month following the arrests.
The list of men accused includes a child protection officer and a member of the government’s social welfare department.
“We are very confident that we have sufficient evidence to prosecute the guilty. We have gathered medical reports that indicate sexual violence, we have the girls’ statements,” Harpreet Kaur, senior superintendent of Muzaffarpur police, told Al Jazeera. “The structure of the shelter indicates something foul, something very serious was going on there.”
She said there were staircases from the garage to the second floor, where the girls lived, alluding to efforts to create a concealed space to carry out acts of sexual violence.
“It looks like many of the rules of running a girls’ shelter have been violated there,” she said.
A board of doctors at Patna Medical College and Hospital in the state capital confirmed that most of the girls living at the shelter had been sexually assaulted.
“These girls were sent to our hospital for medical examination to find out whether they were sexually abused. The report found that all the girls were subjected to sexual activity,” Doctor Rajiv Ranjan Prasad, the head of the hospital, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, tensions in Patna have intensified at a political level, amid accusations that the husband of Manju Verma, Bihar’s social welfare minister, visited the shelter regularly and took part in the abuse. She dismissed the allegations as “politically motivated” at a press conference last week.
Al Jazeera contacted Verma for a response, but she said she had “absolutely nothing to add”.
These girls were supposed to be in safe custody, but these homes are the most unsafe, most unliveable places. This is not about Bihar, there are so many homes where sexual abuse is rampant.
India’s top investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, will now probe the case.
Activists say violent crimes against women are on the rise in India despite tough laws enacted after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi, which sparked international outrage. That case saw “fast track” courts set up to prevent any delays in justice.
In a first, the Ministry of Law and Justice announced last week that it aims to set up fast-track courts to deal with child rape cases.
“Why are girls’ shelters being supervised by men? It must be women-only,” Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera. “We want the government to present a white paper in the parliament immediately on the status of all government-funded homes across the country. They should tell us what’s happening in these homes, their funding, the conditions of these homes.”
All of the girls at the shelter have been transferred to various care homes across Bihar, police chief Kaur said, but police have not yet found their families.
While some are from Bihar, others came from the neighbouring state of West Bengal, which is more than 500km away.
“These girls were supposed to be in safe custody, but these homes are the most unsafe, most unliveable [places],” Kumari said. “This is not about Bihar, there are so many homes where sexual abuse is rampant. Girls in such homes are almost kept in custody and they are abused by mostly men who supervise them, visit them, [there are even] politicians among them.”
She recommended “vigilant systems to prevent such abhorrent episodes”.
‘They are safe now’
A child is sexually abused every 15 minutes in India, according to NGO Child Rights and You. Crimes against minors have risen more than 500 percent over the past decade, the non-profit organisation said, after analysing government data.
In 2016, police in India received 38,947 reports of rape compared with almost 35,000 in 2015, according to National Crime Records Bureau data.
Back in Bihar, the abused girls are attempting to recover.
“I visited … the girls, they are safe now, their spirits are not broken. They recounted their tales of horror to me,” Dilmani Mishra, head of the Bihar women’s commission, told Al Jazeera. “This is a terrible tragedy, the youngest was around seven years old.
“[The girls said to me], ‘We will get education, we will become police officers, high ranking officers and we will make them suffer, those who made us suffer’.”
With additional reporting by Ashutosh Kumar Rajan from Muzaffarpur and Patna, Bihar.