Child Abuse

A shadow looms on Kashmir’s shelter homes after activists expose ‘child abuse’

Every year swarms of children from faraway places of Jammu and Kashmir are being sent to private shelter homes in towns for upbringing and learning. But they don’t always find the safe corners and proper learning atmosphere away from their homes. Lately when women activists unearthed abuse in one of the child shelter homes in Srinagar, it triggered a series of official summons exposing misconduct in many such grooming spaces.

Inside the shabby premises of a private shelter home in Srinagar’s Rajbagh, Ali, 12, is propped up against the dirt stained wall. His unwashed clothes give an impression that the personal hygiene is yet to be regulated in the informal institute, functioning like an observatory.

Ali and other children have been sent to the city by their parents to excel in studies, ignoring the functioning of these homes.

The home is called Babul Islam, which has been registered as a trust by the Mohalla Committee in 2017, with a local Altaf Dar as its chairman.

The building sheltering these children also houses non-local laborers, and some families from Kashmir countryside. The presence of these tenants and their unregulated habits has already cast a shadow on the children’s routine care, proper hygiene and learning atmosphere.

This messy in-house conduct was recently exposed by the members of the Kashmir Women’s Collective (KWC)—a group of women volunteers campaigning for women and child rights in the valley—when they visited the house, and reported the abusive situation.

“The house is lacking the basic facilities,” says Ambreen, a member of KWC. “There’s no security, and no one intervened when we stepped into the house. Who is responsible for these children’s protection there?”

Once the investigation proceeded, many more undesirable things surfaced.

“We also came to know that the children were forced to beg, that too, in the holy month of Ramazan,” says Ambreen. “This is a glaring example of a child abuse.”

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But the house chief, Altaf Dar, a well-built man sporting salt and pepper beard, derides the allegation as some ‘nonsensical witch hunt on the house management by some loose activists in town’.

“See this! And this as well,” he takes one on the house tour, showing the washroom and the kitchen. “Aren’t they in  good condition? So, what’s this fuss about unhygienic conditions?”

For Dar, this semi-furnishing state is seemingly a normal in-house conduct, including sheltering the girl students in the space shared by non-local labourers and local tenants.

Dar’s assertions and posturing, however, hasn’t stopped KWC to probe more into the matter.

“To understand the in-house activities in a detailed manner, we approached students,” says Advocate Sabreen Malik who works with KWC. “Girls were very scared as they were undergoing emotional abuse. So they refused to talk, while boys were very ignorant about the happenings around. We tried to contact their parents but they didn’t respond.”

After the activists exposed the murky house affairs, girl students were evacuated and shifted to the government house Nariniketan, Shalimar.

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At Nariniketan, Superintendent Afrooza Ahmad says the guardians of the girls were asked to report to Shalimar, as soon as possible, in order to take them home.

“The girls refused to talk about the misery they had faced in the house,” says the superintendent, who’s in her mid-fifties. “We’ve all the details of the girls, but we cannot share till the case reaches to its conclusion.”

Another private shelter home in Bemina run by one Bilal Ahmad is also at the centre of the storm over the ill in-house conduct. Ahmad is being charged by Child Welfare Committee (CWC) department for violating the legal guidelines of Jammu and Kashmir Juvenile Justice Rules.

Many other private shelter homes in Kashmir were lately summoned by CWC, for a detailed debriefing on their house conduct and handling.

“We called them after learning that many of them were not providing separate observation homes for boys and girls, clothing and bedding, proper sanitation and hygiene, and were resorting to physical abuse,” says Munaza Gulzar, Chairman CWC. “There’s a guideline that a juvenile should be classified and segregated according to their age groups, like 0-6, 6-12, 12-16, 16-18. We’ve to make them comfortable and avoid any possible sexual abuse.”

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In Rajbagh ‘child abuse’ case, she says, the complaint was registered by the Mohalla committee. “We took cognizance after we came to know that the boys and girls were kept together,” Munaza says. “So, we immediately shifted the girls, as the Jammu and Kashmir Juvenile Justice Act, 2013, does not allow any home to station both boys and girls together.”

At the moment, she says, all the 23 girls are in a state of shock. “They were in trauma when rescued. So, they’ll take some time to get stable and speak.”

While there’re only 70 private shelter homes registered in Kashmir under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), Munaza says, several unregistered homes have to come clean on their conduct. “We came to know that most of these houses are first being registered as trusts or NGOs, before turned into a shelter home for orphans. This is an easy way of registration,” she says. “But there are set guidelines in place for starting a shelter home.”

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While norms are being flouted, the abuse seems to have flourished. Both activists and officials dealing with the child abuse cases equally blame the society for their thoughtless conduct towards child care.

Some parents are adamant to admit their wards in private shelters in towns, despite having means and options to school them closer to their homes. “I don’t understand how a person from Reasi is being looked after by a home in Lawipora, Srinagar. Reasi is in Jammu and Lawipora is in Srinagar. There is no cultural connection,” says Munaza. “This is a very ironical situation, and there’s something fishy going on.”

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But as CWC and KWC are collectively collecting details of the abuse in the shelter homes across Kashmir, it seems something more “fishy” is likely to come out. However, the conflict-ridden society, where destitution management generally starts and ends with orphanages and charitable bodies, such cases itself deepens the sense of crisis. That’s why, perhaps, it’s the time to put the house in order.

 

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