In June 2017, a horrific case of sexual assault shook Bengaluru. A five-year-old girl was sexually assaulted, and found with bite marks on her face and fingers, and an injury to her head, in Veeranapalya, Bengaluru. The child, Rekha* is the daughter of Padma*, who earns a living by collecting hair and selling it to wig makers.
A year later, Padma continues to live with her husband, an abusive alcoholic, and two sons, in a makeshift tent with one cot. However, if there is one solace for her, itâ€™s that her daughterâ€™s life has turned around in ways she could never have imagined, thanks to a number of people who came together to ensure that Rekha has a safe environment to grow up in.
The accused, their former neighbour Veeresh (24), was convicted by a Sessions Court within a year under sections 376 (rape), 307 (attempt to murder), 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence) of IPC and Section 4 (penetrative sexual assault), 9(m) (sexual assault of child below 12 years), 10 (aggravated sexual assault) of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012.
Rekha now studies in class LKG in a private residential school.
On June 3, 2017, Rekha was sleeping with her family in her tent. Padma awoke around 3am, and not finding Rekha beside her, started looking for her.
The little one had woken up around 2am to relieve herself when the accused, Veeresh, took her further down to the end of the road and physically and sexually assaulted her. After he had committed the crime, he left a bleeding and injured Rekha in a bush near a house and left.
It was a beat police officer who found the girl, and rushed her to Bowring Hospital. And when the policemen saw Padma and her relatives frantically searching for a little girl, they asked her to come to the hospital.
Padma found Rekha undergoing treatment in the ICU. It was there that she learnt from the doctors that her little girl had been assaulted by her neighbour. Padmaâ€™s statement was recorded at 6am that morning, and a case was registered by the KG Halli police.
How the people of Veeranapalya came together to help
After the sexual assault came to light, nearly 500 residents of Veeranapalya organised a protest, highlighting security issues like lack of streetlights in the area.
One of the Resident Welfare Association (RWA) members, Vandana Singh, along with a few other women, decided to visit Padma and Rekha at the hospital. What they saw was heartbreaking. Veeresh had assaulted Rekha so badly that one of her fingers had to be amputated.
The case also came to the knowledge of the then Bengaluru Development Minister KJ George. He is the chairperson of Sarvagna Healthcare Institute, whose director, Dr Thriveni, ensured that Rekha followed up with her treatment until she was healthy.
â€śIt was so sad and traumatic. Rekha had multiple fractures. The mother was also alone; the father being a drunk, did not help,â€ť Dr Thriveni recounts.
In the fortnight Rekha spent in the hospital, the women became frequent visitors. They brought colouring books, dolls, food, and other small gifts to try and cheer her up.
The speedy trial
Initially, the trial was a frightening experience for Rekha and her family. â€śI was very scared that Veeresh's relatives would hurt us. She would get scared of him and scream loudly whenever his name was mentioned. Once he was in the room and my daughter did not see his face, but still she started thrashing her legs and screaming and crying,â€ť Padma recounts emotionally.
A noteworthy aspect of this case is the speedy and sensitive trial which did not re-traumatise the child. For one, the police were proactive in recording the statements and apprehending the accused once Rekha identified him. He remained in custody and was not given bail â€“ also because his socio-economic background meant that no one posted his bail.
Kushi Kushalappa of Enfold, the NGO which helped the family with the trial, tells TNM that Judge Latha Kumari was sensitive towards Rekha.
â€śThe manner in which the judge spoke and established a rapport with the child is commendable. She took into account Rekhaâ€™s body language. For instance, after Rekha confirmed the other injuries on her face, the judge asked her where else Veeresh hurt her. Rekha became extremely quiet, put her head down, and refused to speak. The judge was also considerate that a child her age could not articulate sexual assault,â€ť Kushi says.
These cues, along with the incriminating evidence, led Judge Latha Kumari to award a life sentence to Veeresh and also compensation worth Rs 3 lakh to Rekha and her family.
Ensuring Rekha has a better future
The help extended did not end there. Vandana and the other RWA members realised that if Rekha continued to stay in the same tent, she would be in danger from Veereshâ€™s relatives. To ensure that she was safe, they decided to take monetary contributions and create a bank account for her.
However, they ran into a major hurdle. â€śThe family is from Chitradurga and had no identification other than a voter ID Padma had. There was no Aadhaar card, no PAN card. And if we gave the money in cash to Padma, her husband would have splurged it on alcohol,â€ť Dr Thriveni says.
Thus began the months-long struggle to procure documentation to open a bank account. Dr Thriveni and Babu KV from Enfold, worked hard to file affidavits, speak to the Panchayat in the familyâ€™s native place in Chitradurga, and finally got an Aadhar and PAN card in Padmaâ€™s name.
After a year almost, they were able to open a bank account, and create a fixed deposit. Even the Sarvagna Healthcare Trust contributed a substantial amount, which Rekha will be able to access once she becomes a major. Padma meanwhile, is determined to safeguard this money for her daughterâ€™s future and has told neither her relatives nor her husband about it.
But the hardest part perhaps was to convince Padma that her daughter should go to a residential school. â€śI took Padma around the city and showed her several schools. She liked one, and after we explained to her that Rekha would be unsafe here, she finally agreed,â€ť Vandana narrates.
She adds that they plan to open a community centre in the vicinity so that Rekhaâ€™s teenage brothers can stay there after they return from the government school they presently go to. â€śWe are trying to ensure that the brothers are also educated so that the siblings can get along when Rekha comes home for the holidays,â€ť Vandana says.
Padma believes that Rekha is doing much better now, and has forgotten about the incident. However, the distance is difficult for the mother and daughter. â€śRekha still cries whenever I talk to her,â€ť Padma says, â€śI hope she is educated and lives a better life. I miss her a lot but what can I do? Whenever I talk to her she ends up crying and then it takes take at least two hours to calm her down. I don't want to trouble the people in her school, so I talk to her on Saturday and Sunday.â€ť
At a time when conviction rates in child sexual abuse cases remain dismally low, a story such as Rekhaâ€™s is testament to the fact that if the society and the legal system rally for the survivor, timely justice is indeed within reach for them and their families.
*Names changed to protect privacy
(With inputs from Theja Ram)