NEW DELHI: Sanjeev Ojha thought his four-year-old daughter would be safe at the neighbourhood preschool.
But police say a toy salesman entered the school on at least four occasions, taking the child into a nearby room and raping her. He was finally caught two years ago when the girl’s older sister saw him assaulting the child and told Ojha.
More than 36,900 rapes were reported in India in 2014. Nearly 14,000 of the victims were children, a 151 per cent increase since 2009. The crime was long shrouded in silence, but more families are reporting the sexual assault of children, another societal shift after the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012.
But three years after India passed an enhanced law to combat child sexual abuse, activists say that it has been poorly implemented, often leaving families without support after they report sexual assaults.
“The police spoke so rudely that they made us feel as if we were the culprits,” said Ojha, 35. “They made us repeat what happened again and again. They asked, ‘Why did your child wander off?’ “
After the gruelling questioning and medical examination, the family walked nearly five kilometres at 2am to get home, shivering on a December night.
“We were afraid, confused and felt humiliated,” Ojha recalled.
In the two years since that night, other angry parents have protested online and on the streets, demanding greater safety for their children in schools and public places.
In October, lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar formed a coalition of activists and began an online petition asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make child safety a priority.
But many say that despite the increased activism, the system is still broken.
Last week, a study of child-rape cases in New Delhi courts by the National Law School of India University said that the behaviour of the police, doctors and lawyers has not changed much since the law was passed. There were no courtrooms exclusively for child-abuse cases, only a few courts had separate rooms for taking witness statements, and there were no waiting rooms or toilets nearby, despite the law’s provisions.
The report’s analysis of verdicts between April and September last year showed that only one in six cases resulted in conviction. Until October 2014, the national conviction rate under the new law on child sexual abuse was just 2.4 per cent.
In 67 per cent of cases, the child victims gave up on the trials, changed their statements or rescinded their complaints because of threats from the families of those accused of sexually abusing children. About 28 per cent of cases dragged on for longer than a year. The survey said that children are often subjected to “inappropriate” questions by lawyers in court.
“All our energies and focus seems to be on demanding and passing harsher laws and harsher punishments,” said Swagata Raha, senior legal researcher at the National Law School. “But we are not investing much in improving the processes of investigation and justice or in training of police, judges, doctors and counsellors in how they handle children and families who are traumatised.”
Families of victims said that police are often callous. Ojha’s daughter told the police that the accused wielded a knife. Police later found a small knife in his room used for cutting vegetables.
“The policewoman asked us mockingly, ‘He frightened her with this knife?’ “ Ojha recalled. “My wife answered, ‘Whether it is a knife that cuts vegetables or cuts a goat, it is enough to scare a four-year-old child’.”
The official numbers of child rapes, experts say, do not tell the whole story. According to the government, 14 children — eight of them girls — went missing every hour in 2013.
“They are not going missing because somebody wants to take them to a mall or to the park. They are being sexually abused and exploited,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, national secretary of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement).
Last month, a 13-year-old girl was kidnapped by men in a car in New Delhi when she went out to buy milk for her family at dawn.
Police say she was kept in a locked room and was raped by three men repeatedly for two weeks. They shot her and threw her in a well, leaving her for dead. But she survived.
“I had horrible nightmares for days after that,” she said. “I am angry. I don’t want to remain silent. I want the men hanged to death.”
The police arrested two of the three men within days but failed to follow guidelines of the new law. For three weeks, the police did not give the child’s family a copy of the police complaint. The investigating officer stopped taking phone calls from the girl’s father. And no counsellor visited the home, the family said.
“There is no sustained hand-holding or support for a majority of children or the families,” said Yogita Chakraborty, an independent anti-rape volunteer who is helping the teen. “The police don’t bother to tell them their rights under the new law. The families are left to flounder.”
Obtaining financial compensation for victims is also difficult.
“In many cases, the family of the child victim falls into economic hardship and is forced to move,” said Uzma Parveen, a counsellor with Haq, an advocacy group.
Activist and lawyer Gaurav Bansal said that a judge “often handles terror cases, underworld crime, narcotics as well as child sexual abuse on the same day. Children come to court and see hardened criminals milling around in handcuffs.”
Ojha said he almost gave up. He would take time off from work to go to court, but often, the judge or the lawyer was absent, and the trial would be postponed. Once, the suspect’s family threatened Ojha’s wife outside the court.
His family would huddle in fear when mysterious strangers banged on their door at midnight and threw stones on the tin roof.
Then four weeks ago, the verdict came. The judge sent the toy salesman to prison for five years, and awarded Ojha’s daughter about $1,800.
But now he wants to leave the city and return to his farming village where no one knows of the ordeal.
“The village school is not very good, but that is the price my daughters have to pay for what that man did,” said Ojha, who came to New Delhi in 2000. “I wanted to progress in life. But now safety is more important.”
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2016