"I was told that if I go with the men and do as they say they will buy me a cell phone for online classes," alleges 16-year-old Anuja*, a resident of North Chennai.
For close to three months now, the teenager has been forced to fend off perverse attempts to lure her into sex work. The minor who is in Class 11 at a private school in the city, would have automatically turned to her family for help but the person pushing her into the work, she alleges, is her own mother.
"I discovered that my mother Latha* had joined the sex work in January this year, when I found her in a compromising position with another man when I came home early from school," she tells TNM. "She told me that she would kill me if I told anyone but since then she has been leaving the house for hours at a time and returning with a lot of money. It was in July this year, that one of the men she has been involved with came home and demanded that she bring me with her. My mother then began to force me to talk to strange men on the phone and instructed me to join her," she says.
Anuja refused her mother's demands but was scared to tell the rest of her family which included her father, younger brother and grandparents. She feared her mother and the men she worked with will hurt them. But fortunately, her father Venkat* began to suspect what was happening and confronted Latha.
When he learnt the whole truth, he rushed with Anuja to the Thiruvottiyur police station on September 10. But instead of interrogating the culprits, the police allegedly turned on her and her father. And over a month since this incident not even an FIR has been registered. Instead Anuja has allegedly been at the receiving end of threats from both the police and her mother. Now the minor, under the guidance of Nakshatra, a non-governmental organisation that works with survivors of child sexual abuse, has approached the Madras High Court with a writ petition.
The organisation has asked that the child be given protection and a Superior Officer not less than the Rank of Additional Superintendent of Police investigate the matter.
"We have gone to the police station at least 10 times till now and filed an online complaint with the Commissioner of Police," says 43-year-old Venkat*, Anuja's father. "But I have been called a liar and the police are accusing me of manipulating my daughter over a marital dispute with my wife," he adds, exasperated.
On September 10, Anuja and her father first approached the All women police station and Inspector Suguna heard out their complaint.
"I told the inspector everything. I explained how my mother said that if I sleep with the men, I would get a Rs 40,000 phone for online classes. But as soon as we were done, the inspector claimed that it was a domestic problem and told us to resolve it ourselves," she allegs. "When we insisted they brought in my mother and a man named Akbar whom she works with. The two of them then accused me of lying and said that I speak to a lot of men," she adds.
According to Venkat, Latha and Akbar painted the minor girl as promiscuous and claimed she was fabricating tales on the insistence of their father. The inspector, alleges Venkat, was readily siding with the mother.
"In the station itself, Latha was abusing and coming to hit Anuja, but the inspector just watched on," alleges Venkat. "Akbar kept calling the inspector Akka (elder sister) and they seemed to know each other," he alleges.
Despite this, Venkat and Anuja approached the police again on September 22 and September 23, but there was no progress in the case. Anuja was told to attend a counselling session but no move was made to register a complaint.
"The inspector said that if I keep coming to complain she will shift me to a government home or hostel, away from my family," alleges Anuja.
The last straw for the father and daughter, however, was when uniformed police arrived at their residence this week. "For three days, uniformed police officers came to our residence and told us to come with them to Thiruvallur. When we asked why they refused to tell us. They are treating us like we are the culprits," says Venkat. He and Anuja are now at an undisclosed location, with members of Nakshatra.
Sherin Bosko, the co founder of the NGO has filed the writ petition in court on behalf on the minor and has named three accused person - Latha, Akbar and a man named Muni for allegedly attempting to force Anuja into sex work. She further calls out the police, for failing to register a complaint as per the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
"The 1st respondent police failed to follow the model guidelines U/s.39 of POCSO Act 2012 issued by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Union of India, the 1st respondent violated the Act as well as the rules of the POCSO Act," she has alleged in the petition.
As per the section 19 of the Act, any person (including the child), who has apprehension that an offence is likely to be committed or has knowledge that such an offence has been committed, shall provide such information to the Special Juvenile Police Unit; the local police. Every report given under sub-section shall be entered in a book to be kept by the Police Unit.
"The local police in this case have continuously sided with the culprits and irrespective of what the inspector thinks, registering a complaint is mandatory. After registering a case, let her prove whether the child is lying or not," says Sherin. "The actions of a few police officers such as this inspector is tarnishing the image of the Tamil Nadu police which is usually quick to respond to any child related offences," she adds.
TNM contacted Deputy Commissioner of Police H Jayalakshmi of the Special Wing for Crimes against Women and Children. She acknowledged the problems in the way the case was handled and has assured immediate action.
"The complaint will be registered by tomorrow (Saturday). I have given instructions to the local police," she says. "I am personally keeping an eye on the case."
*Names changed to protect identity