The rising COVID-19 cases have put strain on government hospitals in Bengaluru, which are already facing a shortage of healthcare staff. This has also resulted in impediments in getting child sexual abuse cases registered since survivors, their caregivers and social workers are finding it hard to get complaints filed and ensure that medical exams are done for the forensic reports.
Further, social workers whom TNM spoke to also attributed difficulties in reporting child sexual abuse cases to dysfunctional one-stop centres, or Sakhi centres in Bengaluru. These centres are set up by the state government, and partially funded using the Nirbhaya Fund allotted by the Union government. Ideally, a survivor should be able to file a police complaint, get a medical exam done and give their statement to the police, all in one place, mitigating the need for them having to run pillar to post.
However, social workers say that short-staffing and poor management at such centres has exacerbated the problems in reporting child sexual abuse during the pandemic.
The difficulty in getting FIRs registered
Kushi Kushalappa, a member of Enfold, an NGO that works towards supporting children who have faced sexual violence said that not a lot of cases are getting reported during lockdown. The reason could be, she said, that children and caregivers are worried about approaching the police at this time for a few reasons. One being that people are concerned about exposing themselves at police stations because of COVID-19.
"With police stations currently being considered high risk, the officers have been instructed not to entertain complainants inside police station. Arrangements have been made outside, but this is not exactly conducive to register a case of sexual abuse of a child."
Another reason for low reportage, she said, could be because children who are facing sexual violence are stuck with the abuser in their environments with limited or no means to make contact with external agencies who can rescue them. If a child were to register a case against a family member and needs to be placed in a child care institution for care and protection, currently the options are limited. Child care institutions are not in a position to take in children because of concerns about COVID-19,â€ť she added.
Brinda Adige, a member of Global Concerns India, which also works towards supporting survivors of child sexual abuse, said that getting an FIR registered is difficult and takes hours on end.
For instance, in late April, Brinda was working on a case of a 13-year-old girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by her neighbour in Bengaluru. "We had to wait for four to five hours to get an FIR registered," she said. What added to the delay was that the case, which was initially filed at one police station, had to be transferred to another.
In child sexual abuse cases, the survivors can get a medical exam done before a complaint is filed and the FIR is registered. However, if the survivors approach the police first, an FIR has to be registered first before the medical examination is conducted.
"Sometimes, the police ask the medical exam to be conducted before the FIR is registered. Irrespective of this, waiting outside the police station, then running around to get the medical examination and then going to the station to register FIR is doubly hard,â€ť Brinda added.
The ordeal of getting a medico-legal case filed
With most hospitals catering to COVID patients, Kushi said that the response of medical facilities are less than favourable. Besides, the one-stop centres have been moved out of hospitals, so there is no one who can assist the child and family during the medical examinations. â€śHistory taking and medical examinations in cases of sexual violence is a time consuming process that doctors are reluctant to handle at normal times and more so in the present situation,â€ť she added.
These centres, in both the governement hospitals ahve been moved out of the room locted near the trauma centres. However, social workers say that there are no designated teams and hospitals rely on their existing staff to cater to the survivors of sexual assault who show up to the centres as well.
Ideally, these centres should have a doctor, a counsellor, a legal aid professional, a social worker and medical support staff. This team is to ensure that the medico-legal cases are filed on time and forensic evidence is collected properly. However, this doesnâ€™t always happen. In the case of the 13-year-old girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by her neighbour, Brinda said that they had to pressurise and persuade doctors at Bowring and Lady Curzon Hospital to conduct a medical exam of the child. After three to four hours of persuading, a female doctor finally conducted the medical examination.
â€śTwo of the three centres are in government hospitals, which have COVID-19 patients and it is not advisable to take children there. Hence, these procedures are getting delayed," Brinda said, adding that she has had to wait for eight to 10 hours along with survivors at these Sakhi centres, for a doctor to show up and do the medical exam.
"The state's Department of Women and Child Welfare has been sending back Nirbhaya Funds every year as it remains largely unutilised. What we need are teams at the Sakhi centres. What we also require is for the government to use the Nirbhaya Fund wisely," Brinda Adige said.
Speaking to TNM, an official with the Department of Women and Child Welfare said that the state government is trying to hire professionals to manage the Sakhi centres, but there are no takers. "Many doctors are being recruited for COVID-19 cause only. A lot of funds from various schemes have been diverted to handle the situation. Even doctors and support staff are reluctant to join. But we are trying to establish teams," the senior official said.
â€śThis deslay does not mean that people who want to report a case will be turned back by the police or a hospital. They can be assisted through the process by Childline and other NGOs. Also public need to be informed about available mental health services, so even if it is not possible to report immediately, the child or adult facing sexual violence can access mental health services and possibly develop some coping mechanisms,â€ť Kushi added.