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Reaching survivors of sexual violence in Kolkata

Religious and customary laws supersede the country's laws in India when it comes to the legal age of marriage for girls. Girls are often married at 14 or 15 years old, including to much older men.

Sanchita* from Kolkata married, like many young Indian girls, very young. She moved with her new husband into his parents’ house and then later to another apartment belonging to his family. Together they had one son. However, very soon Sanchita found herself trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage. What then unfolded in the coming decades can only be described as a living nightmare.

 

Her husband’s parents did not like her and she was repeatedly mistreated and abused by the whole family. On several occasions she was beaten so badly that she was hospitalised. She was tortured, kicked in the face by her husband’s booted feet, starved, forced to sleep on the floor, sexually abused and all of her belongings were taken from her and confiscated.

 

“For six months I only had the clothes I was wearing. All my sarees - he took them and confiscated them from me."

- Sanchita, survior of domestic violence

 

In India, the legal age of marriage for girls is 18, but religious and customary laws supersede the laws of the country among some communities, where girls are often seen as a financial burden on impoverished families. There is pressure on families to marry off their daughters, sometimes only 14 or 15 years old and it is socially acceptable to sanction marriages to much older men, sometimes three times the girl’s age. Once married, the girls are completely financially dependent on their husbands for food, clothing and other basic necessities.

 

In Sanchita’s case, the relationship between her and her in-laws worsened to such an extent that they tried to forcibly evict her from the apartment. Finding herself in an absolutely desperate situation with nowhere else to go, Sanchita sought help – and she found it at SWAYAM, a women’s rights organisation based in Kolkata, West Bengal.

 

“Cases of husbands wanting out of their marriages and the wives being financially disadvantaged are not unusual,” said Anuradha Kapoor, the Founding Director of SWAYAM. “However, Sanchita’s case was particularly serious.”

 

In India, a marriage is considered dissolved on the grounds of insanity, after which the "insane" person is left with no entitlements. Sanchita’s husband had bribed some psychiatrists who worked at a mental hospital some three hours’ drive away. At midnight on 26 July 2016 she was abducted from her apartment and driven by ambulance to the hospital. She says that enroute she was sexually abused by the three men in the ambulance. When they arrived at the mental hospital she was told by staff that she was mentally unwell and was force-fed medication.

 

Despite this horrifying experience, Sanchita managed to keep her presence of mind. As often as she could avoid taking the medication being thrust upon her, she did, hiding it instead. She found some sheets of newspaper hidden beneath the mattress of the neighbouring patient's bed in the hospital dormitory and tore off strips. She wrote down her sister’s telephone number requesting that someone call it to say that she was being kept in the hospital against her will. Surreptitiously and whenever she could she dropped the scribbled notes out of the window and down onto the sunny street below.

 

By some miracle, it took only three days for a passerby to find the note and take action. Once informed, her sister immediately contacted Anuradha at SWAYAM, who got in touch with Ratnaboli Ray, the founder and director of ANJALI, an organisation working to ensure that accessible and good quality mental health services are available in India. They called the hospital that very day demanding the release of Sanchita. At first the hospital refused, but then the staff became scared when they realised the full weight of the law was behind the two ladies’ organisations. “We are coming,” said Anuradha. “We want her released.” They drove that same evening to the hospital.

 

When they arrived, Sanchita was waiting in the front lobby for them. “You should have seen her,” said Anuradha. “The state she was in! She could not even walk.” They took Sanchita to another hospital where she received proper care. After 11 days she was discharged and returned to her apartment. In the meantime, SWAYAM had contacted the police and Sanchita’s husband was imprisoned for this offence for 28 days.

 

“What we have observed in our line of work is that many of the reception orders issued by the judiciary are done by family members who have petitioned that a man’s wife or sister is insane,” says Ratnaboli Roy. “Many are actually forced admissions, where there is a nexus between the family members and the private psychiatrist. This is done when the men are having relationships outside the marriage or else they want to usurp the woman’s property. Therefore it’s very convenient and easy to render a woman insane and put her in a mental hospital.”

 

Sanchita’s case will be escalated and court hearings will take place throughout 2017. Her story is only one of many. It serves to illustrate the need in India for organisations such as SWAYAM and ANJALI, as they work to support women and men who have been abused and/or are suffering from physical and mental illness and who fall through the cracks in the system.

 

 

 

    ©Rachel McKee

 

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report

 

Year of publication: 2016

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Oak Foundation commits its resources to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. With offices in Europe, Africa, India and North America, we make grants to organisations in approximately 40 countries worldwide.

 

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