Health

Record payout awarded to sexual abuse victims in India

Shelters for women and girls, which typically
house victims of domestic abuse or sex trafficking, along with those who have
run away from home or been kicked out by their families, are notoriously
overcrowded, squalid and often dangerous.

But the case involving the shelter in the
north Indian state of Bihar, which paid the compensation, was particularly
striking because of the number of victims. Over a period of years, 34 of them
were raped by shelter employees and officials of the state welfare department,
according to police. At least one was as young as 10; the oldest was 19.

An independent auditor’s 2018 report revealing
the scope of the abuse at the shelter, in the city of Muzaffarpur, prompted
national outrage. Federal investigators opened an inquiry that resulted in the
conviction of 19 people, including the shelter’s director, Brajesh Thakur.

In 2020, they were found guilty of offences
ranging from negligence of duty to gang rape. Twelve of the defendants,
including Thakur, received life sentences.

It is not the first time that states have
compensated victims of sexual abuse at government-licensed shelters, but it is
the largest case so far, in the number of victims and the size of the payouts.
It signals a partial reckoning with the government’s responsibility amid an
epidemic of sexual violence in India, even as other high-profile cases are
prompting demands for judicial reform. The same year that the Muzaffarpur case
surfaced, the nation’s Supreme Court established national guidelines for
government compensation to other victims of sexual violence in the state’s
care.

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All of the 49 girls who had been living in the
shelter in 2018 received compensation, as had been the recommendation of the
National Human Rights Commission, an autonomous body that opened its own
investigation into the case. They were awarded $4,000 to $12,000 apiece,
according to a statement released this week by the commission.

The abuse was uncovered in 2018 during the
Bihar government’s first independent audit of its social welfare institutions.

The Muzaffarpur shelter, which housed runaways
and other destitute girls picked up by police in Bihar, was in Thakur’s family
compound, next to his three-story home and his father’s printing press.
Residents were kept on the windowless top floor of a decrepit building. Windows
on the lower floors had bars on them.

It was one of many such shelters outsourced by
the Bihar government to private contractors. The auditor, the Tata Institute of
Social Sciences in Mumbai, reported that abuse was rampant throughout the
state’s shelters but singled out the Thakur one as particularly bad. It was
notable for “carrying out sexual violence on the girls, all of a tender age and
from marginalised backgrounds, in the name of punishment and discipline,” the
audit said. “The girls reported that they were molested by the male staff on a
regular basis.”

The auditors also noted that conditions at the
shelter were “extremely deplorable,” that the residents were locked in their
wards except for meals and that they had no access to open space or
opportunities for recreation.

The shelter opened in 2013, but it is not
clear whether conditions there were better earlier in its history.

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Many former residents testified in court that
they were routinely raped and physically assaulted by shelter staff as well as
by child welfare department officials. They described being beaten with sticks
or scalded with hot water for such offences as asking for food or resisting
sexual abuse.

Among the state welfare officials convicted in
the case was Rosy Rani, an assistant director, who was accused of failing to
notify police or in any other way responding to the victims’ complaints. She
served a six-month prison sentence and is now contesting the termination of her
government job.

After the audit, a state welfare department
officer filed a complaint with police. Protesters demonstrated in Patna,
Bihar’s capital, and in New Delhi. Thirteen welfare officers were suspended,
and the state’s social welfare minister was forced to resign.

The victims, none of whom could be reached for
comment this week, scattered after the Muzaffarpur shelter was closed when the
trial began. (It was later demolished.)

Three of them went to another shelter for
women and girls run by a Christian charity in Patna. There, a 16-year-old
victim who provided testimony to police also spoke to The New York Times in
2018.

“Brajesh sir raped me. Repeatedly. He would
rape me twice, sometimes thrice a week. If I dared resist, I would be beaten up
black and blue,” said the girl, whom Indian law prohibits from being
identified.

©2022 The New York Times Company

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