It was an evening like any other in January 2017. Nine-year-old Sharanya was playing at her grandmother’s house. In the evening, she ran back home to check on her elder sister, 11-year-old Hrithika, who had said she was unwell and had not gone to school that day.
Sharanya would never have anticipated the sight that greeted her as she entered her one-room makeshift house in Walayar in Kerala's Palakkad district: Hrithika, suspended from the roof, a noose made of cloth around her neck.
The death of their elder child terribly aggrieved her parents, Shaji and Bhagyavathi. Little did they know however, that in less than two months, they would find Sharanya in the same state, in the same spot – immobile and hung from the ceiling.
Safely tucked away inside Sharanya’s petticoat was a photograph of her elder sister.
While Hrithika's death did not garner much media attention in January, her sister’s death in March created widespread shock.
Days later, the police revealed that the siblings were victims of child sexual abuse. What unfolded after this revelation was a tale of suffocating silence, which eventually extinguished the girls’ will to live.
The silence that took their lives
In the days following Sharanya's death, the police arrested five people who had allegedly sexually abused her and Hrithika.
One of them, a juvenile, was granted bail. The rest of the accused – V Madhu, Shibu, Pradeep Kumar and M Madhu (referred to as Madhav from hereon**) – continue to be in judicial custody.
The accused have been booked under IPC sections 305 (Abetment to suicide) and 376 (rape), SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, various sections of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the Juvenile Justice Act.
While Madhav sexually abused the younger sister, Sharanya, and Shibu abused the elder one, Hrithika, all the other three accused allegedly abused both the siblings. According to the police, Sharanya was subjected to sexual abuse after Hrithika's death.
All the accused were known to the sisters’ family. While V Madhu and Madhav are the girls’ mother Bhagyavathi’s close relatives, Shibu, a co-worker of the parents, had been living with the family for eight years. Pradeep and the juvenile were their neighbours.
According to the police, men from the neighbourhood frequently visited their house to consume alcohol with the girls' parents.
‘He is family, after all’
TNM visited the girls' single-room home in Attappalam in Pudussery panchayat in March 2018.
Road that leads to their house
On one side of the dimly lit space is the open kitchen. A bed is placed adjacent to that. Two chairs and a television set are in another corner.
The chairs are pulled. Shaji and this reporter sit on those, while Bhagyavathi remains standing for the duration of the conversation.
After a brief chat about their stalled house construction, the topic turns to their children. As the story unravels, the couple admits that they knew about Hrithika being sexually abused by V Madhu, who is Bhagyavathi's uncle's son, and lived not far away from their home.
Hrithika had confided in her mother that Madhu had sexually abused her multiple times. The parents not only failed to file a police complaint, but also in protecting the class six student from her abuser.
"He is a close relative and so we did not want to approach the police. He is family after all, we thought. I complained to Madhu's mother and my aunt,” Bhagyavathi shares.
In fact, Shaji had caught Madhu sexually assaulting Hrithika a few months before her death. Even then, Bhagyavathi only “strictly told him” not to come to their house.
Asked about whether she raised the matter strongly in the extended family, Bhagyavathi shies away. "I told Madhu and his mother, but did not want to make a fuss about it. I feared they would accuse me of starting discord in the family and so I believed that he would stay away from my daughter after the warning," she says reluctantly.
The tendency to “keep it quiet”
Children often do not have the vocabulary to express what is happening to them, especially when it’s sexual abuse. When Hrithika told her mother, she framed it as not liking what Madhu was doing to her. She wanted him to stop coming home.
Unlike many others, Bhagyavathi understood what her daughter was trying to tell her. However, her first instinct, like those of adults in most cases of incestuous abuse, was to keep it quiet and resolve it as discreetly as possible. Bhagyavathi explains tearfully that she felt it was her only option.
"I was helpless, I could only cry along with Hrithika and hope for the abuse to stop. Madhu wouldn't come home when my husband and I were there," she laments.
Dr Janaki Sankaran, former member of Ernakulam District Child Welfare Committee, feels that the predominant tendency in such cases is to tell the child to "keep quiet", to tell them not go to the abuser’s house, or convince them "it was only touching nothing else".
“Such a response does not give the child the unambiguous message that what happened was wrong, it should not happen to any child, your body is special and belongs only to you,” she says.
“This is especially common when the accused is a close family member,” she remarks. "There continues to be a lot of reluctance on the part of families when it comes to responding appropriately to a child who has been or is being sexually abused,” she observes.
While children should be praised and encouraged for reporting the abuse, it is brushed under the carpet.
“The situation is much more complicated when the abuser is a family member because the betrayal of trust is more difficult to handle. A lot of relatives are likely to come into the picture with accusations and counter accusations," Dr Janaki says.
While the family mourned Hrithika's untimely death, what they failed to notice was how Sharanya was coping. She had been the first to see her elder sister dead and suspended from ceiling.
Sharanya had scribbled names, including of Hrithika, on a wall of her house
Looking back now, Shaji admits that Sharanya became increasingly withdrawn in the days following Hrithika’s death. She refused to go to school, seemed to be aloof and unnaturally quiet.
About 10 days later, her parents convinced her to return to school. But even there, the nine-year-old kept to herself, and did not play with other children after she returned home. This went on until March 4, 2017, when she took her own life.
How Sharanya’s mental health was neglected
While Shaji had noticed that Sharanya had become increasingly withdrawn, the family assumed she was dealing with loss just like any of them.
“We were all suffering after Hrithika’s death. We just thought, she would be okay after some days,” Bhagyavathi says. When she started going to school, the family thought it was progress.
Shaji and Bhagyavathi
Besides, the family did not know that she was also being sexually abused until she committed suicide, and the police arrested Madhav.
"Parents need to find time to talk to their children every day and listen to them,” says Seema Lal, a Kochi-based child psychologist.
“Even when it comes to talking about abuse, it shouldn't be like – okay, today we will talk about abuse. It should be a gradual process.”
Seema explains that children need to be talked to about things like good touch and bad touch, made aware of the correct names for body parts, and be warned against going alone and encouraged to move in their group.
“In this process, parents build confidence in their children,” Seema says.
Further, when the parents decided not to report Hrithika’s abuse to the police, they also cut off Sharanya’s chance to receive counseling, which Seema believes Sharanya desperately needed.
“Sharanya obviously needed more than the “it’s okay, this too shall pass” approach. The parents did not understand this – not deliberately, but out of their ignorance. Schools need to be more equipped to handle such situations in their students’ lives. It is sad that she did not open up to anyone," Seema remarks.
Mental health experts also say that there’s a strong possibility Sharanya was depressed.
Dr U Vivek, a Kochi-based child psychiatrist at Renai Medicity, also consults with two suicide prevention helplines – Chaithram and Maitri.
"There are two issues here,” he says. “Sexual abuse is traumatising, but especially so for a child. Second thing is, apart from the abuse, the depression was compounded by the death of her sister. [Her suicide] was an action of grieving too; she had lost a close one."
Children who are depressed show different symptoms compared to adults, observes Dr Vivek, and being sad is not the only sign.
“Other visible indicators are drastic behavioural changes, poor academic performance, irritability, aggression and so on,” he says.
The aftermath of Sharanya’s death
After Sharanaya also committed suicide, the modest accommodation her family called home became a painful reminder of their loss.
So, they decided to shift in with Bhagyavathi’s elder sister and her family. Madhav, another accused, is Bhagyavathi’s elder sister’s son.
Bhagyavathi is reluctant to admit that they lived with one of the men who abused her daughter, and initially, denies it. Later, she says, “After the death of our girls, we did not feel like staying in this house. But after a few months, my sister became bitter because her son was in jail on charges of harming our daughter. We returned home then.”
Shaji and Bhagyavathi lived there for about six months, after the police arrested Madhav on charges of sexually abusing the sisters. Police officers found this move worrisome as they believe that moving in with the accused's family would put pressure on the parents to change their stance in court.
Shaji and Bhagyavathi also have a five-year-old son, whom they sent to a hostel. He has been living there for the past year, since Hrithika’s death. “He doesn’t want to come home,” Bhagyavathi says. “He says he will return only when the construction of our new house is complete.”
POCSO cases on the rise
Since the death of the sisters, Walayar police station, under whose jurisdiction Attappalam falls, registered 19 cases under the POCSO Act. While 19 cases were registered in 2017, one case has been registered in 2018 so far.
This, against a total of 3 POCSO cases registered in 2016.
Police attribute the spike in the number of POCSO cases to increased reporting.
Speaking about Hrithika and Sharanya’s deaths, SI Limi of Walayar police station notes that the living conditions of the family contributed to the vulnerability of the children.
"Shibu, who used to work with the girls' parents, lived with them. According to statements given by neighbours, men used to gather at their house to drink alcohol with the girls' parents. Alcoholism is a major concern in these areas," the SI says.
National figures also indicate that in a majority of the cases, abusers are known to their child victims.
Of the 1,656 cases registered under POCSO in 2016 (NCRB data), the accused were known to the victim in 98% cases.
Limi also points out that in many cases, the victims’ families refuse to file or delay complaints if the accused is a family member or someone known to them. Further, not many families pursue the case until trial starts.
Then, some families change their statement, and others turn hostile. Many even withdraw the case, citing that the victim, who might have become a major by the time trial began, was now leading a peaceful life.
In a number of cases where the accused are relatives, the victims’ families are also forced to strike a compromise and leave the police case. “A compromise in such instances mean that the abuser is made to marry the victim," Limi says.
After the sisters' death, the police, along with Child Welfare Committee have started conducting house meetings every few weeks, to interact with the women in the area.
"Often what happens is, the mother has no say in the household and the father would be an alcoholic. This creates a vulnerable situation for the children. In houses where mothers are strong and they are able to put an end to their husbands' alcoholism, the risk of children being sexually abused also comes down. This is what we are aiming at through our house meetings," the police officer says.
The legal recourse in cases of incestuous abuse
Shaji and Bhagyavathi had been reluctant to file a case against Madhu and Madhav, considering they were related. Now, a senior police official who is part of the special investigation team tells TNM that they have gone soft on Madhav, because he is Bhagyavathi’s nephew.
Walayar police station
"In a case of sexual abuse, there are three possibilities of solving the crime. One is when the victim speaks, second is through scientific evidence, and third way through strong statements given by parents. In this case, both the victims are no more, there is no scientific evidence because the abuse came to light much later, and now the parents are trying to save their relatives who are in jail," the senior officer says.
Shaji, like his wife, maintains that they could not have done anything more about Hrithika’s abuse. "We knew that Hrithika was being abused, but couldn't do anything. Her death was a shock to us,” he says.
Bhagyavathi however, says that if they had any inkling what Sharanya would end up doing, they would have complained to the police much sooner. “How can I explain... If I had known she (Sharanya) would do something like this... If I had known this is how things will end… then I would have informed the police about the abuse… I wouldn't have waited," she rues.
** Since two accused have the same name (Madhu), M Madhu has been referred to as Madhav in this story, solely for the purpose of clarity.