On the morning of 4 May, a man called Chhotu Pal waited and lurked outside the shanty of a visually impaired girl in central Delhi’s Karol Bagh area. The girl’s mother had just stepped out to fetch water, and as the girl sat and waited, Pal approached her and began to offer her chocolates and biscuits to lure her out.
“I refused, because my mother had asked me not to go anywhere,” says the young girl, as she recounts how Pal, an e-rickshaw driver, then proceeded to drag her to a neighbouring shanty and rape her.
There were two other men at the time who, she claims, stood guard at the door, barely speaking.
She reported the rape to her mother after the latter returned home, and to her uncle, who then took her to the police station to file an FIR. Pal has been arrested and the young survivor managed to identify him by his voice.
The Trauma of Rape, the Loss of Kin
I meet her in person a couple of weeks after, as she takes a long, arduous route around the city, accompanied by her mother who holds her hand, and a DCW (Delhi Commission for Women/Delhi Mahila Ayog) woman field worker.
They are to make stops at a centre to update the survivor’s Aadhaar, and then head to her bank branch to link her Aadhaar to her existing account. Post this, she will be dropped off at the National Association for the Blind (NAB) – which all three of them summarily call “the blind school”.
I meet her just three days after her uncle – who lived with her and her mother in their erstwhile Karol Bagh shanty – killed himself, having agonised over the rape of his niece for weeks.
"He used to sit up and drink and talk about the incident every night. I woke up at 5 am last Wednesday and walked out of the house to see him hanging from the branch of a tree." - Mother of the Visually Impaired Survivor
The loss of her uncle is a painful one, manifest also in the immediate change in their livelihoods.
"He was the earning member of the family; he used to drive a rickshaw and fend for us. He was also the one who would make phone calls, since neither my daughter nor I can. In fact, he was the one who dialled 100 after he heard about the rape."
The women have now shifted to the girl’s brother’s home in Shalimar Bagh, where her brother lives with his wife and children.
As our car traverses the length of dusty, labyrinthine roads in north-west Delhi, driving bank to bank, an important discovery is revealed that has been made over the past couple of days.
The survivor (I’ll call her Nisha) who was initially reported to be a 20-year-old visually impaired woman, is actually 15. Nisha’s is, therefore, a case of minor rape, which will be tried under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act – an act that stipulates that a child’s dignity must be upheld during a trial that must also ensure speedy justice. Such a trial makes provisions for a non-threatening and child-friendly environment in court.
Of course, the most recently compiled NCRB data shows that about 90% of child rape cases were actually pending trial in 2016, with only 28% of such cases ending in conviction – but for now, Delhi Mahila Ayog member Harjeet Kaur is hopeful.
"Everyone thought she was 20 because the girl and her mother didn’t know themselves and they’d recorded ‘20’ on her Aadhaar card. However, her school-leaving certificate clearly indicates that she is 15 years of age. We also got a release-cum-restoration order from the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of Delhi which testifies to her age." - Harjeet Kaur, DCW Member
The revelation of her age has led them to update her Aadhar, which – as Harjeet mentions – she will need when the DCW allocates funds to her for her rehabilitation.
Of Finding Hope in School
As we attempt to locate the branch of her bank where Nisha has an account, I ask her how she feels about the school she will soon be attending. Nisha, who has initially hemmed and hedged and responded clinically to all the questions about her case that field workers have been asking, visibly brightens at the prospect of the school.
“I never went to school beyond the third standard, you know,” she tells me. “But I always enjoyed myself there. Perhaps I will like it here.”
Perhaps you will make a lot of new friends, I suggest.
“Perhaps I will,” she muses. Then, with a smile, she adds, “Perhaps, they will call me on the phone too when I’m not around and we will gossip for hours. I can only receive calls, you know. I can’t dial or save numbers – but it will be good to have a chat.”
We chatter about the likelihood of subjects she might expect to find at the NAB, when Ms Kaur interjects and reminds her that her education will focus on vocational subjects. Nisha looks pleased at the idea, “I’m not sure what I’m good at, or whether I have any hobbies or interests. Maybe I will find what I’m good at here.”
A Mother and Her Daughter
We’ve journeyed a sufficient amount of the way before we’ve located her bank branch – and Nisha quietly acquiesces to being led out by Ms Kaur and the driver of the vehicle who assists her on field visits.
I watch as she trundles out of the car and trustingly follows the pair, with a sheaf of bank documents under their arms, to the office inside. As her mother and I wait behind in the car, her mother tells me she’s planning to live in Unnao for the year – which is where she’s from and where the rest of her family stays – while Nisha stays at the NAB.
“I don’t think we can live here anymore. But since Nisha will already have a home at the NAB, I'll come and visit.”
She tells me she has never stayed away from her daughter for longer than a day. Nisha agrees when she returns and rejoins the conversation. “I’ve never stepped out of the house without my mother. Not since this happened to me,” she tells me, pointing to her eyes.
Nisha and her mother only vaguely remember that medicines that had been used to treat an infection across the side of her face had caused the loss of eyesight. “Dawai zyada ho gayi thi (the medication proved to be too much),” she tells me simply.
Perhaps involuntarily, as we discuss their relationship and the impending separation of the two women, Nisha asks for help in moving out of her seat and sitting next to her mother. We are going to be at the NAB in less an hour, and for the rest of that time, she remains glued to her mother’s side.
At one point, when Ms Kaur begins speaking about her hearing, where Nisha has recorded her statement in front of a magistrate, she shifts agitatedly in her seat.
"Main case wapas nahi loongi (I won’t take my case back). I want him to pay. And when I haven’t done anything wrong – why should I fear?" - Nisha*
At another point, she stops and asks for a bar of soap that she will need at the NAB to wash clothes with (“what if they don’t have soap?” she says) and a packet of “teekhi chips”. She also proceeds to find my hand and stuff a handful of wafers in my hand. We must share, she insists.
It is at the NAB in south Delhi where we finally part ways. I want to give her time to say goodbye to her mother, and she tells me about visiting hours when she will “probably be free”.
I’ve spent less than a day with her, but as I watch her enrol herself into the rehabilitation programme, and recollect the many tasks that one 15-year-old had to pack into a single day, the thought of the road ahead seems overwhelming. A heinous crime perpetrated against her has already catapulted her into a life she had not imagined. She will now be living away from her mother, having already shifted homes twice and has lost an uncle and trusted guardian.
When does this get any better?
*Name changed to protect identity
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