Little girls lost

Among the earliest stories of my career was to report the rape of a five year old girl in a Bombay slum in the 1980s. She had been raped by her 15 year old neighbour while their parents – sweepers – were all out to work.

I had not known what stress and trauma might be involved in seeing a little child bleeding down to her ankles and piteously crying out in pain. The case had just been reported to a NGO whose’ office I was sitting in at the time to speak to its president on the amendment to the law on rapes in view of the Mathura controversy. She had barely begun to brief me when her workers rushed in with the news. She dropped everything and carried me along. I wished she had not because I have still not gotten over that sight and the trauma of it.

Up until then I hadn’t really thought about the indignity, pain and feeling of violation that a rape victim encounters. This one was just a little girl and her mother, barely 22. Also had no idea what she was faced with. I suddenly understood the fear in my mother’s eyes and the tension in her body each time I came home late. And now that I am surrounded by little girls that age – my neighbours’ children – I am very uncomfortable to see them playing alone or in groups but unsupervised in the neighbourhood garden and cannot even bear it when their mothers send them across to the store down the road to get some last minute supplies or groceries they might have run out of.

All those years ago, when the NGO was done with reporting the rape to the police and securing action against the juvenile offender, I had had my first lesson in the social dynamics of the country. The victim and the perpetrator had belonged to the same community and both were children besides. “So there can be no other angle to this crime,’’ the police officer said. The rapist being a juvenile added to the problems of registering an FIR but the NGOs had their way though it needed the women workers to do some real rough – and tough – talking with the cops to get them to sit up and take notice –they had been more inclined to persuade the 22 year old mother to hush up the crime for a consideration.

Nearly 20 years later there is a sense of déjà vu as I see reports filtering in about how the Delhi police tried to bribe the father of another five year old girl who was similarly violated in the state capital and I wonder if nothing has changed in three decades or if it ever will, A five year old child is not even aware of her sexuality and I was horrified to see one policeman suggest that she might have invited the rape. He was almost slapped by the NGO workers, only a sensitive police commissioner who ordered the FIR registered had been able to save the day.

I moved away from that kind of reporting soon enough but in the meantime I learnt some lessons from the NGO which I realise are true even today. Its president had told me we must educate both men and women that the honour of girls and women “is not about their underwear’’. Their honour should be measured by the same yardstick as we do men – are they honest, incorruptible, with good values and gentle demeanours. “So no man must be allowed to believe that he has shamed a woman just because he has succeeded in violating her body. Women should be weaned away from the belief that their lives are not worth living after such an unfortunate incident.’’

At the end of the day, rape is not even about sexual gratification – it is all about a twisted sense of power which a weasel satisfies by raping a child and a fox by picking on a lower caste woman in the villages. That is why, perhaps, some miscreants in West Bengal threatened the girls of Presidency College in Calcutta with rape. That is also why and how one of my colleagues, two decades ago, was threatened with rape by a woman on whose fraudulent activities in a school she had been exposing. In the days before mobile phones this woman locked this colleague up in a room in the school and said, “ Tell me who has been talking to you or lese I will ask my brother to rape you!’’ Yuk!

This woman was among the sophisticated elite of Bombay and it took her friends a six hour search to locate the missing colleague. Thankfully she returned safe and sound for the brother could not bring himself to fall in line with his sister. So I wonder if it is even about just men alone.

It is a pathetic mindset that has to be fought against and the fight cannot succeed unless that change happens – no amount to laws will prevent rapes and if anyone thinks this has to do with either the BJP or Congress or even the Trinamool Congress-ruled states, they are either sick or need to be sent back to primary school to be trained in social ethics all over again.

Meanwhile I pray for the little girl in Delhi and all the little girls in this world and hope there will be a time when they no longer have to have their childhood snatched away from them so abruptly – and that pain and bewilderment that I saw in the five year old child’s eyes so many years ago does not have to be reflected in any other little girl’s eyes ever again.

I know that it is too much to hope for. But I hope, nevertheless.

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