When Ridhima* heard about Zeenat’s* horrific abuse, they battled threats and abuse to help her get away from the clutches of her family.

How a Bengaluru girl was rescued after years of abuse thanks to a friendImage for representational purposes only
news Abuse Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 19:30

“I was in Class 4, must have been 8 or 9 years old,” wrote Zeenat*. “There was a boy called Javed, he used to come to our house. He used to be very close with me. He used to kiss me on the neck, but I didn’t understand what he was doing that point.”

One wintry morning, mid-November,  Zeenat, who is from Bengaluru, opened up for the very first time about the sexual abuse she allegedly suffered for years. The person reading her messages on the other end was her best friend from Nashik, Maharashtra – Ridhima*.  

In the messages that followed, Zeenat opened up about how she was sexually abused for years by different family members, including four uncles. “I have been through so much. If I told someone, no one would believe me. They all hated me,” she wrote in another message.

Zeenat turned 18 a little over a week ago. She has finally left the house which ruined her childhood, and is now staying with Ridhima, a 21-year-old management professional.

Zeenat and her family have severed ties with one other through written statements, of which TNM has copies, given to the police. While she looks forward to a new life and a better future, her freedom has come at a price. Zeenat and Ridhima have allegedly gone through months of blackmail, emotional turmoil and even physical assault at the hands Zeenat’s family to get here.

Years of sexual abuse

Zeenat’s childhood was scarred not just by the sexual abuse she faced at the hands of her relatives, but also by the isolation and neglect she suffered at the hands of her parents and other adults who should have protected her.

Zeenat tells TNM that they lived in a joint family, where, at any given point of time, at least 15 people were in the house. “People were always coming and going, so perhaps it was easy to lose track of a small girl,” she says in a small voice.

She finally told her mother about the abuse when she was in Class 9. But her mother was dismissive at best: “This is not a big deal. We also went through this in our time. No need to make a fuss.” She also questioned the validity of Zeenat’s story: “Why were you quiet for so many years then?”

Zeenat’s aunts, the wives of her abusers, were no better – they blamed the teenager for what was happening to her. “My aunts told me that maybe I liked it, and that’s why I didn’t tell them about it for so many years,” Zeenat recounts.

She believes that her father too knew what was happening, but chose to turn a blind eye towards it.

“I was always alone, and felt insulted. I was not allowed to play or watch TV … Always feeling isolated from my cousins. There were times when I tried to hint about what was happening with me, but they just laughed,” Zeenat says.

The threats and the assault

In late 2016, Ridhima and Zeenat connected over Facebook. They clicked instantly and became close friends – so much so that Zeenat wanted to spend her holidays at Ridhima and her parents’ house in Nashik.

When Zeenat tried asking her mother for permission, she was initially reluctant. However, she agreed to let Zeenat go later. On October 10, 2017, she left for Nashik. But the next day, soon after she reached, it came to her knowledge that her parents had filed a missing person complaint at Adugodi police station, going back on their word allowing her to leave.

Zeenat’s family allegedly started issuing threats to Ridhima too. According to their statement, her family “abused [Ridhima] and Zeenat in filthy terms and threatened that if [Ridhima] did not bring Zeenat back,” they would kill Ridhima and her family, and they would not face repercussions as they had “connections”.

Zeenat, meanwhile, kept saying that she did not want to go back and, at that time, Ridhima couldn’t understand why. She convinced Zeenat that she would accompany her back home, so that she could finish her college education.

On November 4, they came to Bengaluru and were forced to go to the Adugodi police station by Zeenat’s family. Here, Ridhima’s statement says they were again verbally abused and threatened in presence of the police officers.

“One of the uncles who abused Zeenat, grabbed my collar and threatened to harm me and my family,” Ridhima alleges. She tells TNM, “They said that if I come to Bengaluru again, anything could happen to me, and it wasn’t their responsibility.”

She adds that the police just watched like mute spectators that day.

By November 6, 2017, Ridhima was sent back to Nashik and Zeenat, her movements barred and education discontinued, was apparently under house arrest. Soon after Zeenat confided in Ridhima, her phone was taken away.

Ridhima tweeted to the Bengaluru police with Zeenat’s address in order to help her get out of the house. However, when the Adugodi police went there in the first week of December 2017 and asked her to speak in front of her family, a scared Zeenat could not say anything.

On December 20, Ridhima came to Bengaluru and was directed to approach Childline as Zeenat was a minor then. The case was transferred to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), and a few days later, Zeenat and Ridhima recorded their statements with the CWC.

But when she turned 18, she was sent back to her house as she was no longer a minor. She managed to get out for some time on Monday with her younger brother and met Ridhima at a restaurant in Koramangala. But things took an ugly turn when Zeenat’s relatives, who had been following her, turned up at the restaurant.

“We tried to tell them let’s sit and talk calmly, but they wouldn’t listen. They started hitting me and Zeenat; they took away my phone. They were hitting us inside the restaurant and outside on the road. It was only when bystanders intervened and called the police that they ran away,” Ridhima says. “But they forcibly took Zeenat with them again.”

That night, Ridhima filed a complaint against Zeenat’s uncles and father for assaulting them.

Finally, with the entire family present at the police station, both Zeenat and her family gave written statements severing all ties with each other, and Zeenat was free to go with Ridhima.

Dreams of a better future

Ridhima tells TNM confidently that she did not think twice about helping Zeenat. “You only get one family and families are forever. But no one should have a family like this. I would have done this even if she wasn’t my friend because no one deserves this.”

She and Zeenat plan to go back to Nashik and live in Ridhima’s home. Ridhima also intends to support her financially. And while they are still wary of what Zeenat’s family might do now, it doesn’t stop them from dreaming of a better future.  

“I am happy to finally be far away from those people,” Zeenat sighs with relief. “I will be joining a photography course. I want to start writing a book. My dream is to be a wildlife photographer and writer.”

Another side to the story?

Ridhima says that Zeenat's parents have been trying to spread rumours about the duo, saying that they are in a relationship and that that allegations of sexual abuse are false. 

According to a social worker in Bengaluru, there may some substance to the parents' version. The social worker adds however, that we cannot dismiss Zeenat's allegations about the sexual abuse even if there's a possibility that she and Ridhima are together.

"There's a high incidence of sexual abuse that happens within families, including joint families. People mostly tend to turn a blind eye when it happens within their homes," the social worker observes.

Ridhima and Zeenat maintain however that what the latter's parents are saying is false and that they are best friends.

*Not their real names

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