NEW DELHI: When a seven-member team of young psychologists of the ‘Koshish Project’ of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) landed in Bihar last October for a social audit, they had little idea that they would end up exposing a sordid tale of sexual abuse of the scale that has surfaced.
“I am sure nobody, the Bihar government or us, knew that this scale of sexual abuse would be prevalent at the institutions in Muzaffarpur. We built confidence with children, spoke to them like a friend and they opened up to us,” Mohd Tarique, who headed the team, told ET.
The three women members of the team interacted at length with many of the nearly 30 girls against whom sexual assault has been proven now. The team camped in Bihar for almost seven months, travelling to 110 institutions over 38 districts but making it a point not to accept any hospitality or even refreshments such as tea from any institution. The team members also ensured that they got to speak to the girls in private.
It was the report from TISS in May that blew the lid over the sexual abuse case, triggering a political storm and prompting the Nitish Kumar government to bring in the Central Bureau of Investigation. A team led by CBI inspector Vibha Kumari has landed in Muzaffarpur to begin a probe.
The TISS team was given a mandate by the Bihar government in July last year to do a social audit of all 110 government-run or supported institutions in the state that house a range of people such as old-age homes, children homes, adoption centres and rehabilitation centres of people into begging.
“One must credit the Bihar government for having this social audit, which is not compulsory under law. Or this large-scale sexual abuse would have not come to light. Every state may not be so confident as to say come and audit our institutions. We need to make these places safe for our children and quick action followed our report,” said Tarique.
Among the institutions audited by the team were the girls’ homes run in Muzaffarpur and elsewhere by the main accused Brajesh Thakur, whom the team also met in course of their work.
“The most critical part is having a conversation with the people housed at these institutions. We focused on individuals as well as small and big groups of them, trying to understand their experience,” said Tarique. “Sexual abuse is something that especially the children are not very vocal about. They are not able to share it very easily.
It wasn’t upfront that all the children spoke about it but there were some children who shared that this was happening. Some used another girl’s name saying that it happened with that person. It was basically indicating more like a pattern or the environment of the place.”
The TISS team leader said that the most important part was the body language employed by him and his colleagues. “It is important how you carry yourself in the institution. Like if you enter the superintendent’s office and two children bringing in tea for you notice you are comfortable with him, they take the message to the barrack that there is no point in telling these people anything. We avoided that – no refreshments were accepted,” he said.
Tarique said that when the TISS team spoke to the children in private, they strictly disallowed any institution member to enter the room on any pretext. “We had to warn the staff that if they come in on any pretext, we will have to complain to the government. This gave the children the confidence to speak up,” he said. The TISS team would also never counter-check what children told them with the staff there immediately in front of them. “If you do so immediately, the child would be reprimanded and beaten up,” he said.
The key was to be realistic with the children. “We told them we may not be able to change everything, we did not make tall promises. But we assured them that whatever they would tell us, we would report it and it would go to the highest authority. The children related to us when we clearly told them this is how much we will be able to do and what we will not be able to do. Our mandate was not to investigate a crime – it is something we stumbled upon,” Tarique told ET.
He cited the example of some institutions having well-maintained registers that recorded minutes of meetings of children committees. “Two boys were part of the committee as per the register. Our team member talked separately to these boys to ask, ‘what did you decide in the last meeting’? We realised the boy had no idea about the committee,” he said.
TISS has recommended that children be made part of the evaluation process. “Till you do that, you are not going to be able to stop such abuse,” said Tarique. The team has also recommended that social audits be made compulsory. “Child protection officers focus mainly on the administrative side of a facility. Nobody spends time with users of the facility,” said Tarique.
Courtesy: ET Bureau