In September 2014, the newspapers (particularly Indian Express) were covered in pictures of the deplorable state of the Odhav Nari Gruh shelter. A journalist from Indian Express had managed to get into the shelter and taken photographs of the unhygienic conditions of the shelter where basically women were defecating in the rooms and nobody was cleaning it up and very difficult for women to exist in that environment. She also spoke to the residents and they said that they were doing all the cleaning if anybody was doing it. This was the context in which the women had escaped the shelter and they had broken the windows of the shelter to get out. There was an attempt to ask the court to take suo moto notice of the status of the state of shelter but the court declined to act on media report in this instance. It was then that Peace and Equality Cell(PEC) in collaboration with other individuals (Trupti Shah and Afroz Zahan) filed a PIL in Gujarat High Court. The evidence before the court was the experience of the domestic violence survivor that PEC had supported. She had lived in the shelter for one year and could recount the frightful experiences that she had had. To this day, PEC is grateful to this survivor who chose to remain anonymous for fear of attacks and traveled long distances to come and swear the affidavit for the court. Afroz Zahan, the women’s activist had visited the shelter many times to support the survivor and take her to court and she also was able to talk about the condition of the shelter. So, it was then the court took notice of the PIL and said that it was worthy of one. The first important breakthrough in this PIL was when the court ordered a committee to be set up to inspect eight different shelters of Gujarat. Our director – Prita Jha was there in court at the time when these decisions were being made and we wanted NGO sectors to be represented – particularly genuine women activists who had been working on these issues for some time. Manjula Pradeep of Navsarjan trust and Jahnvi Andharia were selected as NGO members and accompanied the various State level persons who visited the shelters. The committee included a Judge and a Secretary of the Women and Child Department. There were various difficulties in trying to ensure that all members were available as they were all very busy. There was a time when the Chief Secretary, the Women Secretary applied to ask that she did not have to go and visit the shelters and if she could delegate the task to somebody else. Luckily, we didn’t have to oppose that application because the court denied it outright and we heard later that she was actually glad that she got to visit because she was shocked at the state of the shelters and she was unaware of their state. After the committee submitted its report, Justice Akil Qureshi, from submission of our senior adv. Megha Jani appointed another committee to come up with suggestions to frame the rules for shelters recognizing that the old rules were not appropriate anymore. Whilst this committee was working, a newspaper report appeared on girls in the Juvenile shelter in Odhav which is in the same campus as the adult women shelter on which we had already submitted a PIL had broken away from the shelter. It was reported in some newspapers that some of the children had alleged that they were being prostituted and were being made to. Given that we were already in court with a PIL against shelters, we asked the court to take suo moto notice of the newspaper report regarding child sexual abuse in the shelter in Odhav. Again, we asked the court to appoint a committee to go and inspect hte shelter and report and we wanted NGO members to be a part of that committee. The court rejected our application for NGO members to be included as the State objected to that but it was decided that two women judges would go and visit the shelter and report to the court. Two women judges went to the shelter and interviewed all the children who were present at the shelter and gave the details to the court. The main point coming out of the report was that nobody made allegations to child sexual abuse and there was no evidence to suggest that CSA was going on but many children complained about their living conditions, quality of food they were getting and lack of recreational activities in the shelter. They complained that they did not receive tea in the morning and evening and the judges reported that the children looked deeply unhappy. After the report, the court ordered for the authorities to comply with the recommendations of the judges and to report on it. We know that conditions in the shelter did improve because the girls at the time who had in fact run away told us that the conditions in the shelter improved and they began to get tea and better food etc.
Back to the adult shelter PIL, the new rules, after much delay with the State were put on the government website some time in late 2018. It has taken more than a year to frame the rules and senior advocate’s office and I worked on the rules considerably and eventually, the rules were accepted and published in January 2019. Please see uploaded copy of the gazetted rules below. There are a lot of good things that came out in the new rules including the definition of gender based violence and the rules of shelter managers and counsellors and case workers. In the process of collaborating with women and child department on the framing of the rules, Director of PEC, Prita Jha built a collaborative relationship with the Women and Child Commissionerate. She was invited to deliver a training of new shelter rules to shelter managers before they were fully notified. It was suggested that their suggestions should also be included in the rules and many of them made several suggestions. Training was also given on Domestic Violence Act and Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act to shelter managers at different points. Visits were undertaken of Baroda and Bharuch Shelter sometime in 2017. One of the issues coming out of the Baroda and Bharuch Shelter was to give training of mental health issues and needs of mental health problems. PEC spoke and collaborated with women and child department, gender resource center and mental health hospital gujarat to make such a training possible. Gujarat Mental Health Hospital provided most of the resource person for this training; participants were shelter managers and activists from NGOs. After training of the rules, the main issue was the implementation of the rules. Informally, PEC took up the initiative to visit shelters all over Gujarat. In sort it found that two shelters were functioning well and found various problems with other shelters.
The three main issues were :
- The need for regular and permanent staff to be looking after shelters. Three important posts in the new rules are shelter managers, case workers and counsellors.
- The main purpose of shelter not being fulfilled in terms of rehabilitation and reintegration of residents in most cases.
- The most important one complained by the women itself was regarding their detention against their will in the shelters. Senior advocate Megha Jani has got permission to raise some of these concerns before the court.
The purpose of the new rules is to ensure empowerment and rehabilitation of the residents. We hope to see the implementation of the rules.
Further reading : Prita Jha’s essay in Open Democracy on women’s shelters being more like a jail than a refuge.