Call for shelter checks after new India sex abuse case

As five are accused of molesting handicapped orphans in Madhya Pradesh, the govt is urged to keep its promise
Call for shelter checks after new India sex abuse case

Indian police escort Brajesh Thakur (center) on Aug. 8 in a case involving the sexual abuse of girls at a shelter home in Bihar state. India ordered the inspection of at least 9,000 shelters for abandoned and orphaned children after a wave of sex abuse scandals. (Photo by AFP)

Rights activists have called for India's government to start a promised audit of all shelter homes after police arrested five people accused of sexually abusing physically handicapped orphans at a privately-run but state-funded facility in Madhya Pradesh state.

Nineteen current and former inmates of Sai Vikalang Anath Ashram in Bhopal have complained to police since Sept. 14 that its director and several others sexually abused them.

Police have arrested five people including director Mahesh Awasthi, 71, who served in the Indian army. The others arrested are a teacher, the home's assistant, her husband and their 19-year-old son.

The government last month ordered the inspection of at least 9,000 shelters for abandoned and orphaned children after a wave of sex abuse scandals shocked India.

Maneka Gandhi, the women and child development minister, told the Indian Express newspaper on Aug. 8 that the probe would include background checks on owners and managers of homes.

Authorities were jolted into action after reports of the sexual abuse of girls at shelters in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states.

The latest case in Bhopal involves a home for children with speech and hearing problems.

Using sign language, a 24-year-old former inmate told police that she was first raped and sexually abused in 2010 and that such acts continued until she left the shelter in 2017, according to Hindi newspaper Patrika.

The Patrika report said that one girl was chosen each evening and taken to a terrace of the building where she was abused. Inmates who refused the advances were severely beaten, locked inside toilets and even tortured.

Several national papers also said that police are investigating allegations that three inmates were tortured to death. 

Father Maria Stephan, public relations officer of Bhopal Archdiocese, said that children in shelter homes seldom get a chance to interact with the public and their grievances go unnoticed.

He called for all shelter homes in Madhya Pradesh to be audited and he said this could be done with the help of civil society groups.

The government should start the audit of state-run and state-funded privately managed shelter homes without delay, said lawyer Anita Rajpal, an activist working for women's and children's rights.

"Leaders often make public announcements like the one Maneka Gandhi made, but nothing happens after that," she said, adding that even after a month there was "no sign" of such a probe happening in her Madhya Pradesh state.

Rajpal said the law mandates a government inspection of shelter homes every two months but the conduct and results of these inspections are not transparent.

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Holy Spirit Sister Lizzy Thomas said audit teams should include "respectable people from society besides government officials to ensure transparency."

When children get an opportunity to interact with people from outside, it will help them share their problems, she said.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan wants monthly inspections to protect children's rights but activists such as Sister Thomas claim his government run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is slack in caring for rights.

Sister Thomas said BJP-led governments are overzealous in acting on complaints against Christian institutions but slow when dealing with others.

Neighboring Jharkhand state ordered a probe into all homes run by Missionaries of Charity nuns after staff from one home were accused of selling a baby three months ago.

Sister Thomas said the state governments in New Delhi and several northern states are run by the BJP, who are known for being biased against Christian institutions.

Crimes against children have been increasing in India. Nearly 100 children are sexually abused each day, according to federal data collected from police stations.

There were 89,423 offenses against children reported in 2014, then 94,172 in 2015 and 106,958 in 2016, according to the National Crime Record Bureau.

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