Benares/ Lucknow. Have you seen a caged bird? It has everything - water, food, shelter. But its song lacks joy. Much like this girl in a shelter home Gaon Connection spoke to, "Didi, I want to go outside. I want to see the world. But we are not allowed to go out. We have no problems here but who wants to live like this - locked up all the time?"
For her, freedom in any form is a dream. "I wish these people would get me married off. At least then I will be out of here," she says.
Separated from her family, bound by the law, this young girl in a shelter home in Benares shares her story with Gaon Connection in the hope that perhaps this will help is getting her out of here. Dressed in a white suit, she stands, half-hidden behind a column in the verandah, when she speaks to us, there is a hopelessness in her expression. "I have spent 15 years of my life in incarceration. I have neither a home nor freedom. I want to be free, to leave this place," she says. She was three-years-old when she came here. Separated from her father at the Pratapgarh railway station, she was never reunited with her family. For years, she waited - looking up expectantly at the sound of footsteps - hoping that it might be her father, hoping that she had been "found". But now, after 15 years of waiting, she had almost given up, she has becomes used to the dingy four walls of the shelter home housed in the even more dingy and narrow by-lanes of Benares. Somewhere, deep down, she still has a glimmer of hope, maybe somehow her father will read this report and realise that she is here and come and get her.
The thousands of privately-run shelter homes across the country, there are countless girls like her, for whom life means just the four walls of the home. They do not have the permission to meet anyone. They do not have the right to share their stories - good or bad - with anyone.
Taking recourse to the rigidity of the law, the management of these homes ensures that these girls remain cut-off from the world outside and they continue to run the homes according to their own wishes. And this is where the exploitation begins. The sexual abuse case of the shelter home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, shook the moral fibre of the nation. Soon after came the Deoria case in Uttar Pradesh. And no one can forget the heart-rending case of the special child who was abused in a home in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. If such cases are happening, it is largely because once a girl comes to a shelter home, it becomes next to impossible for her to tell anyone in the outside world about what she is going through. No one from the outside world can meet her. Her helplessness is complete. Her strength collapses. And the goings on of the shelter homes remain secrets. That is until some girl manages to scrape together whatever bits of remnant courage she has and manages to get her story out. The Muzaffarpur girls told their sordid saga to social workers from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. For Deoria, it was the young 10-year-old who managed to seize the moment and escape.
But these cases are rare. For most of the girls here, abandoned as they are by their families and bound by rules, speaking out is not an option. In the Benares shelter home 94 girls share seven rooms. They are between 18 and 60 years of age. Some of them are those who have eloped - who have dared to challenge the patriarchal system and asserted their right to chose a life partner, those who got lost at a young age and could not give adequate details of their address and also those who are special.
All is quiet in the area surrounding the home in Jaitpura. There is no way the girls inside can even get a glimpse of the world outside. There is a central courtyard where there is some open space for the girls to mix up with each other.
One of the inmates, in an advanced stage of her pregnancy, cries silent tears. "My only crime is that I got married of my own will. I am bearing the punishment for that," she says between sobs. Her own family had registered a case against her husband. He is in jail and she is in a jail of a different kind.
Once a girl enters the system here, it is impossible for her to get out. If their parents want to meet them, they need written permission from the Child Welfare Committee. The only people who come here are either parents of high-ranking officials. And at no point of time are the girls left alone by the management - even when the girl is meeting her parents.
The Uttar Pradesh government runs 58 homes while private operators run 175 homes. Some of these homes have been shut down. The girls from Deoria have been shifted to the Jaitpura situation home in Benares. Though the officials have inspected the home, no additional arrangements have been made for them.
Murti Devi, who is the Administration in charge at the Jaitpura home, says, "We do not have space to keep more girls. We have not got any written orders to accommodate the girls from Deoria and Allahabad. We were just informed on the phone that the girls from Deoria will be coming here."
Another staffed told us on condition of anonymity, "On 6 August, district officials have come here on inspection. At that time we did not know that the Deoria inmates would be coming here. Everyone in the department knows that this is a rented space. There are only seven rooms. And already we have a strength of 94. There is space to keep even one more girl here. I wish the higher officials realise this and they stop the transfer of girls from Deoria and Allahabad."
Another official told Gaon Connection, "Incidents like Deoria happen because the government opens homes like these but does not monitor their functioning. Officials also find their hands tied because the laws are very stringent. If women officials keep interacting with these girls routinely, there is no way that such incidents can happen."