A risky freedom


Namrata Acharya writes about the plight of inmates of the rehabilitation home for girl children in Purba Medinipore, West Bengal

Eighteen, the official age of attaining adulthood, is often a reason to celebrate. It is the age of freedom, aspirations and verve to challenge the conventional.

Ruksana (name changed) turned eighteen a few months ago, but in captivity. She yells and repeats: “For three years you have been telling me I will be free. When will your tomorrow come?”

Ruksana was rescued by Police from perilous circumstances at a roadside eatery in Kolkata about three years ago. She was then directed by a court to stay at Snehaneer, a rehabilitation home for girl children in Purba Medinipore. While Ruksana has been in the orphanage, Police and the local child welfare committee (CWC) have been conducting inquiries about Ruksana’s home, which she said was in Bangladesh. The case turned into a repatriation issue, and Ruksana could not be released.The CWC and Police got in touch with the Bangladesh government for the custody of Ruksana. However, with her family remaining untraceable, the inquiry ended without any conclusion. If Ruksana is released, she would be treated as an illegal immigrant. If she is not, she will be deprived of her right to freedom.

In the meantime, Ruksana retracted from her earlier statement and informed the Police that she was from Kolkata. “With Ruksana retracting her earlier statement, the case has become further complicated. Unless the court orders, we cannot release her. There is no clear law governing such cases,” says the warden of Snehaneer. Meanwhile, Ruksana awaits freedom, sans a crime.

Reshma (name changed), was detained by Police from a red-light area a few days ago. According to Reshma, she was above 18, but the Police insisted she declare her age to the court as 17. If Reshma is 18 she can be convicted for a criminal offence. If she is 17, she comes under the purview of laws governing juvenile crime.

According to The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA Act), 1956, prostitutes can practice their trade privately but cannot legally solicit customers in public. Further, in 2013, the Indian Parliament too changed the definition of exploitation to remove prostitution from the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013. Thus, prostitution is not counted as a criminal offence under the Bill.

Unaware of the complex laws, Reshma insists she is 18. “The Police asked me to say that I was 17, but I am 18. I am married and my husband had left me at a hotel, when Police picked me for no crime,” says Reshma.

So far, Reshma’s husband has never come to meet her at the orphanage. “We believe that Reshma’s husband has totally abandoned her, put her in a prostitution racket and married again,” says an employee of Snehaneer.

The story of Sabeena and others

Locked in a secluded room at Snehaneer, sixteen girls share a space lined with wooden beds, without mattresses. There are no fans, even as the humid temperature rises up to 45 degree Celsius in the months of April and May. Fans are not installed in the rooms for authorities fear the girls might commit suicide, while mattresses are not given as they might get soiled.

Yet, that is the best that Shehaneer can provide. If the girls were not here, they would have been probably lying homeless in streets, vulnerable yet unwanted. The girls are mentally challenged, and almost all above 18, living a life of confinement of the worst form.

Snehaneer is meant for rehabilitation of mentally challenged girl children, but the home shelters a number of victims of trafficking, juvenile law-breakers, including girls rescued from prostitution, abandoned babies found in garbage bins and other children rescued by the local child welfare committee (CWC). In some of the cases district courts have entrusted the orphanage with the custody of the children .
According to the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act 2000 in India, state governments are required to establish a CWC in every district. Each CWC comprises a chairperson and four members, with powers same as a metropolitan magistrate or a judicial magistrate of the first class. A child can be brought before the committee by a police officer, or any other individual. The CWC usually sends the child to a children’s home. Snehaneer is one of the four such government-listed homes in the district of Purba Medinipore. It is said, it is one of the better maintained among the four in the district.

The rooms for girls other than those mentally challenged are better off, for behind the locked doors and staircases are dormitories with few fans and beds with worn-out mattresses. On a positive side, the girls are imparted with regular school education, and vocational education in some cases. However, in a few cases, particularly in early marriage cases, in absence of proper birth certificates, the girls are not allowed to attend school.

Two among the recent entrants in the home includes an infant found in a garbage bin by Police. The child has been suffering from cerebral palsy, which requires specialized treatment, which Snehaneer is unable to provide.

For nearly 40 girls, there are only three toilets in the hostel. There is one general physician for the entire home. There are no psychiatric or clinical psychologists for mentally challenged girls or pediatricians for the babies.

Every month the government provides Rs 700 for each of the girls at Snehaneer.

“For us the biggest problem is where will the girls go after the age of 18,” says the warden of the hostel. That’s indeed a matter of concern. If the girls are detained after 18, that’s the violation of their basic human right, the right to freedom. If they are left to go, they have nowhere to go.

The story of Reshma, Ruksana and Sabeena is no different from other women and children, trapped in the rehabilitation homes across India. For them, 18 could be the age of beginning of vulnerability, homelessness and hardships of adulthood.

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