Rape cases blot image of a shamed Kerala

Dateline: Thiruvananthapuram

Outrage over molestation of a popular actress, in Kochi, was steering debates on women’s safety in Kerala last month when the rape of a minor girl was first reported from Kottiyoor, Kannur district. The accused, Catholic priest Fr Robin Vadakkancheril (48) had abused the girl in his parish; she was 16 then. The rape came to light after she gave birth to a child; soon, attempts made by members of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Wayanad district to protect the priest were exposed, leading to the disbanding of the CWC.

As more women appear on TV with blurred faces to narrate stories of abuse and gang-rapes that took their childhood away, a man is booked for endorsing paedophilia on his Facebook page. The two realities cut a grim picture in a state increasingly identified with moral policing in public spaces. The blurred face, still, tells the real story – “It’s the abused, and not the abuser, who has to live through the shame,” says T N Seema, CPM state committee member and former Rajya Sabha MP.

It’s the kind of shame that Sunday Shalom, a Church-backed magazine, hurls at the victim with these lines from an article after the incident – “A priest is human too; he also has to deal with temptations. But child, couldn’t you have stopped him?” The rape cover-up also comes with a sordid back-story. Childline members in Kannur say the victim’s father initially stated that he abused his daughter, as part of efforts to help the priest fly out of the country. 

In two weeks after the priest was arrested, at least six more cases involving rape of minors have been reported in the state, with the accused men falling in a range of usual suspects – a close relative in Thiruvananthapuram, a gang of young men who raped after threatening video-shaming on social media, in Wayanad, a 70-year-old neighbour in Kozhikode.

There is the standard contention that the numbers may appear alarming but the state also has a better record in reporting rapes of minors. It is an argument that however fails to explain convincingly the year-on-year rise in the number of cases registered under IPC section 376. Child rights activists maintain that it is time to look beyond vigil in reporting cases and address a more critical issue – long delays in conviction of the perpetrators.

The recent death of two sisters, aged 14 and nine years, in Walayar in Palakkad district were initially treated by the police as suicide and cases of unnatural death were registered. The deaths came 52 days apart; both the girls were found hanging in their one-room home. Reports pointing to sexual abuse have since come out, leading to suspension of the sub-inspector who initially probed the case and filing of cases under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The new investigation team has arrested four men, including a cousin of the victims’ mother.

The opposition has targeted the CPM-led government over the probe, but it is more about systemic lapses than political will. Seema says stringent provisions under existing laws are seldom backed with implementation. “Right from the stage when FIR is filed up to arguments in court, there are lapses that weaken cases,” she says.

Long-drawn cases

According to provisional figures released by the Kerala Police, 929 of the 2,899 crimes against children registered in 2016 were rapes. The figure was 720 and 709 in 2015 and 2014, respectively. The police registered 2,093 cases under POCSO Act in 2016, 241 of them in Malappuram district. The figures reveal sexual abuse of over five children, every day. Of the 2,093 cases, 387 reached the courts and convictions were ordered in only 34, at a rate of 8.7%.

Child rights activists highlight impact long-drawn court cases have on lives of young victims, never allowing them to move on. Fr Thomas P D, Director of Childline – Thiruvananthapuram, calls for more special courts to hear child abuse cases. “We’ll take the case of Thiruvananthapuram – the victims are housed in three Nirbhaya homes as we can’t shift them to their homes. Their statements could be influenced and there could be other risks as most victims are known to abusers. But these shelter homes are already packed and the girls have to live under close watch while the men who committed the crime are out on bail,” he says.

Earlier this month, police in Kalpetta in Wayanad district registered a case against six men for sexually abusing seven minor girls, all inmates of an orphanage, over a couple of months. The men are learnt to have taken the girls – eighth and ninth standard students – to a shop in the neighbourhood and abused them. CPM’s Kannur MP P K Sreemathi told reporters after interacting with victims that the accused also threatened to share the girls’ photographs and videos on social media, to ensure the victims’ silence.

A staff member at the orphanage noticed one of the girls coming out of the shop, following which the orphanage administrators informed police. Significantly, the abuse was exposed on a day the government disbanded the Wayanad CWC following allegations that its members including chairman Fr Thomas Joseph Therakam tried to cover up rape by Fr Robin Vadakkancheril.

Fr Thomas says it is unfortunate that people expected to protect children’s rights are themselves under the scanner. He also points out that the Kerala context is unique considering that access to pornographic content is becoming easier. “The highest number of cases involve girl students in standards eight to 10. They are specifically targeted for abuse also because there is higher vulnerability. There is access to pornography but no real awareness on sex. Last year, we handled eight cases of pregnant minor girls,” he says.
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