A series of exposé of sexual abuse in shelter homes for girls and women has finally driven public attention towards these institutions. This heightened interest in shelter homes is overdue and welcome. The slew of public audits that have followed shall hopefully uncover gaps and lead to lasting change that ends the neglect faced by both these institutions and their residents.
However, while audits will tell us what is happening inside shelter homes, we need to also acknowledge and fix what happens outside. After all, shelters are meant to be temporary and restorative arrangements. Without the larger systemic shifts outside, these ‘homes’ will not shelter residents from violence but reproduce it inside, à la Muzaffarpur.
Prevention of violence
Even as our immediate focus is to make shelter homes safe and useful, let us also attempt to create conditions whereby girls and women are not rendered homeless. In other words, the starting point of a serious reflection on shelter homes is to tackle our pervasive cultures of violence.
Thankfully, this does not need the reinvention of the proverbial wheel, especially after the Justice Verma Committee’s report gave holistic analyses and recommendations. If only we begin to view violence against women as structural, and not only as episodes or acts of physical and/or sexual violence.
In reality, each such episode or act of violence is harboured, triggered and normalised by the systematic and even subtle or invisible ways in which women are disadvantaged. It is structural violence that makes women reject or quit paid employment, glorify their sacrifice and then encourage more women to follow suit. For lakhs of women, especially from lower-income groups, financial dependence is often a leap into the spiral of violence, exploitation and distress.
Besides, it is not as if only girls and women living inside shelters are survivors of violence. There is a universe of survivors living outside, in their natal or marital homes, with their families who deny them their right to choose, those who suffer marital rape, abuse and/or discrimination in silence. So, as auditors, we cannot disregard the norms and social arrangements that are the bases of everyday and life-long discrimination girls and women face. Where sexism and patriarchy pass as tradition or custom, violence against girls and women becomes ‘culture’.
Safety nets or traps?
The other aspect that needs a rethinking is our idea of shelter homes. Shelters for women, for example, are mostly designed and run on the lines of custodial spaces that offer food and accommodation in exchange for mobility. In fact, many shelter homes for women keep and refer to their residents as ‘inmates’, as if they were convicts who need to be locked within the premises of the shelter. The issue is not limited only to semantics but to perceptions and operating procedures as well. There are of course those residents who face threats to their lives and therefore need protection, but do we need to suspend or suspect the autonomy of all adult residents in the name of protection? Thinking about residents’ mobility and autonomy shall help end their social isolation and let their voices be heard outside these institutions.
The other way to end the opacity of shelter homes is to allow select and bona fide individuals into these homes from time to time. Very often, access to residents of shelter homes is difficult, if not impossible, because the management or staff of these homes have concerns over the safety, privacy and confidentiality of residents and their accounts.
However, these legitimate concerns can sometimes be used by certain errant shelter homes to keep up the shroud of secrecy that exists around these sites. There exist sensitive and ethical guidelines and mechanisms that can be put in place to end the seclusion of survivors living in shelter homes, allowing them to speak to us directly. Such strategies can generate greater public knowledge about issues faced both by residents and shelter homes, and perhaps lead to enhanced mobilisation of resources and better services. Thus, instead of being isolated sites of loneliness and conflict, shelter homes can create windows of curated, meaningful exchange between their residents and a select cohort of experts and Samaritans.
The life after
For the duration of time that a survivor of violence spends at the shelter home, the work outside also involves fast-track and seamless coordination between different agencies to ensure she gets her entitlements and more. A range of psychosocial, educational or livelihood-related services is required to help restore the survivor as close as possible to independent living. When she is ready to step out into the world she had escaped from for the shelter, what about the next roof over her head? Rehabilitation cannot and should not always involve going back to a family/circumstance that was violent or unbearable, to begin with. Affordable and long-term housing, including working women’s hostels, are needed simultaneously, along with the rather difficult conversation around property rights for women. Are we there yet?
So, let us not wait to know of sensational violence to plan our response. We already know how neglected these supposed ‘homes’ are: findings and recommendations from earlier news/audit reports – however erratic and dated – have hardly been acted upon, if at all. For example, the perpetual staff and fund crunch at shelter homes is well known. So is the lack of mental health care or rehabilitation efforts, both of which are serious human rights violations.
Revamping shelter homes requires different tools – a zoom lens for the inner story and a wide-angle for the one outside. As we wait for the audits to report what they saw, let’s reflect and act upon what we can already see.
Amrita Nandy is an author and researcher who is currently leading a five-state study on shelter homes for women.