A recent report has exposed a series of child abuse cases at the state-run Seva Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti care home for children. The facility in Muzaffarpur town in the northern state of Bihar shelters homeless children.
According to the report, over 30 girls were molested at the Muzaffarpur facility — the youngest being a seven-year-old girl. Many children were reportedly beaten and drugged by the shelter staff.
Police arrested over ten people, including Brajesh Thakur, head of the shelter home, in connection to the child abuse scandal.
Last month, a special court collected the girls' testimonies as part of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The abused children recounted the horrific tales of sexual assaults at the shelter home.
"The children were traumatized. It is a miracle that they survived this ordeal," Dilmani Mishra, chairperson of the Bihar Women's Commission, told DW.
The Muzaffarpur child abuse scandal is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Reports of child molestation at a shelter home in Uttar Pradesh state emerged when a 10-year-old girl managed to escape the facility and sought police protection. Police raided the shelter and rescued over two dozen girls, who narrated accounts of abuse from the shelter staff.
India's Central Bureau of Investigation is probing both cases.
Failure to protect children and women
The child abuse scandals have shocked the South Asian nation, which has been struggling to deal with the issue of protecting women for many years. Several rape cases in India have made headlines in the past few years, with women's rights groups slamming the authorities for their inability to safeguard women.
Rights activists say a pervasive culture of violence exists at care centers, and that shelters for children in India are poorly regulated. Many facilities are not routinely inspected, with privately run institutions operating without a license, exposing thousands of children to mistreatment.
"It is not the first time that a child abuse scandal at a public institution has come to the fore. The government needs to carry out regular social audits to make these shelters more open and accountable. The Juvenile Justice Act requires all such institutions to be registered. We can tackle the issue by taking some necessary steps," Bharati Ali, director of HAQ, a non-governmental organization for child rights, told DW.
Activists also suggest that the selection of those who work on government's child protection committees should be done on merit and without any political influence. Local child protection units need more staff and better training so that they can do justice to their job, they say.
"To be honest, most people don't really care about these places because they house poor and disempowered children," Enakshi Ganguly, a child rights activist, told DW.
Children of a lesser god
The public anger in the wake of the latest child abuse cases has forced the Women and Child Development Ministry to order a social audit of all 9,000 shelters in the country.
"I have instructed the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to ensure that the audit must be completed within the next two months," Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, told media on Wednesday.
A 2017 government study revealed that half of the 9,000 childcare institutions across the country were unregistered, many running illegally.
A number of reports submitted to the government in the past five years outlined substandard conditions in the shelters for children — from poor lighting and cramped accommodation to physical abuse. In the majority of these reported cases, the perpetrators of abuse have been wardens, watchmen, cooks and other staff at these institutions.