For close to three months now, nine minors staying at a government hostel for boys in Kanyakumari district have suffered repeated abuse and sexual assault in the hands of their cook. The children who belong to the SC/ST community finally revealed a horrific tale of physical and sexual abuse on January 28 to school authorities in the form of written statements.
"The details of the letter almost made me cry," says the headmistress who collected the complaints. "The children had described brutal acts of sexual assault and repeated rape. They couldn't even correctly name what he had done."
23 minors from villages across the district stay at this hostel and attend the local government school. All was well till the former assistant cook Vishwambaran, took charge as head cook. According to authorities of the District Child Protection Unit who conducted an enquiry at the hostel, the children whom the cook targeted were between the ages of eight and 13. They lived on the ground floor of the hostel while the older students lived on the first floor.
"He targeted the younger children because they would be too scared to say anything. He threatened to kill them if they opened their mouths to anyone," says Kumudha, the District Child Welfare officer. "The children told us that he would get inebriated and strip off all his clothes. He would then dance naked in front of the young boys to songs with sexually explicit lyrics and sleep next to them like that. He would say that he'd pay money if they performed oral sex on him. And if they refused he beat them up," she adds.
How did the children then complain?
"It was just by chance," rues the headmistress. "These nine children all failed to bring their homework notebooks to class one day. When the teacher asked them why they said the cook had sold their books for money. Shocked by this, she began to probe the children further and that is when this horror was revealed," she adds.
Following this, the teacher made the children write down their grievances and gave it to the headmistress. On reading this, the headmistress immediately informed the collector's office and the District Education officer. The Kanyakumari Collector, Sajjan Singh R Chavan, then directed the District Child Welfare officer to investigate the matter and record the allegations.
"While Vishwambaran was the main abuser, his assistant Wilson also quietly let him carry on with the perverted behaviour," says Kumudha.
"In addition to the abuse, the children were also made to get up 5.30 am every morning to cut vegetables, clean the hostel and even the toilets," she says.
But where was the hostel warden when this was happening?
"This hostel did not have a full time warden," says Kumudha. "Only a man who came during the daytime when the children were not there. He also took care of another hostel nearby, so he stayed there instead. But that doesn't excuse him from being aware of the terrible crimes happening to the children here," she asserts.
In fact, when the cook found out that the children had complained, he beat up one of them and left him to bleed in the hostel. It was the concerned headmistress who'd gone looking for the boy who rushed him to the hospital.
Need for change
"In my final report to the collector, I have written extensively about the cook and his assistant. But we have made it clear that the warden must be made answerable for negligence," says the officer.
Officials tell TNM that in their letters, the children had used 'xxx' in places where they simply could not describe the horrors they faced. Some of the boys had reportedly said the cook made them do 'bad things'. But what was uniform in all their letters, was the usage of the word 'mama' (Uncle) to refer to the cook.
"He was clearly manipulating these children emotionally as well," says Kumudha. "And we have to blame the lack of checks in place in such institution for the protection of minors."
In its report to the Collectorate, the District Child Welfare office has made multiple recommendation to avoid further such cases of abuse. Some of them include - regular medical check ups and counselling sessions for children in government hostels, training of wardens to handle children sensitively, and periodic visits by District Child Welfare authorities.
When TNM contacted Collector Sajjan Singh R Chavan, he assures reformative action on part of the district administration.
"We will definitely look into implementing the ideas to prevent children from facing similar situations again. For now, Vishwambaran has been arrested. Police have booked him under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) and Atrocities against SC/ST Act. Wilson meanwhile is absconding. We will also initiate a disciplinary hearing over the warden's failure to identify the abuse in the hostel," he says.