In India, where being a woman is synonymous with disparate social status, unequal access to healthcare, education facilities, economic opportunities and sexual violence, it is not surprising that gender-based identity issues are becoming more commonplace. The current trend of equating ‘gender’ with ‘women’ understandably dominates the literature on the subject, yet, civil society has witnessed almost no shift towards gender equality, reiterating that being anything but a boy in India comes with severe implications. The inability to terminate practices of feticide, honor killings, dowry and most recently- “chronic sexual abuse” is often regarded as an impediment to the nation’s progress, and continues to be attributed to the strongly male-oriented bias that is woven into the country’s social fabric. In fact, campaigns and government-led initiatives like “beti padhao, beti bachao” and “girl child education” that aim to bring about behaviour and mindset change, garner plenty of media attention, but fall short in addressing challenges faced by a large section of our urban society- female street dwellers. As a member of the Robin Hood Army (RHA), an organization that distributes food to the homeless every weekend, my interactions with footpath dwellers highlight some of the most tragic problems that a city’s street children are left to deal with. One such story is that of a little girl called Rageshwari. March 22nd, 2016: It was nearly 6 pm on Sunday and our RHA volunteers were out on the streets distributing food near Marine Lines Station, when a group of little boys ran up to us just as the distribution was about to come to a close. Usually, when we have a handful of meals left, we group children with their siblings and ask them to share the food amongst their family members. Looking at the boys, one of our volunteers Ragun said, “Stand in line next to your brother so that I can hand out the meals, and give one amongst the two of you”. I jogged back to the car to retrieve the khichdis, only to return to a pale-faced Ragun. “I need to talk to you,” she said, and pulled me away from the volunteers who had begun to hand out meals. “What’s wrong?” I asked, puzzled by her serious tone. “These boys aren’t boys”, she told me. “They’re not?” I asked rather perplexed. “No”, she whispered. I then turned around and smiled at the bunch, all looking at us with eager faces. “Guys, lets ask these kids to tell us their names as we give them the food,” I said to the other volunteers. One by one each of the children came forward. “Mandvi… Meenakshi… Sayadhri… Rageshwari” they told us excitedly clutching our hands as though they felt they would be rewarded for stating their names correctly. For a few seconds our whole RHA team stood there, baffled, trying to understand how and why all these little boys had girls’ names. Determined to get to the bottom of this, our volunteers Kaushal and Saloni struck up a conversation with a relative of the young girls. Much to our horror, he recounted a story of a little girl from the same cluster, living on the streets close to these children, who was abducted, and who had evidently been sexually assaulted. Although the details of her whereabouts after the incident were unclear from our volunteers’ conversation with the relative, he did mention that the parents of Mandvi, Rageshwari, Meenakshi and Sayadhri were compelled to disguise their children as little boys to avoid future incidents of sexual abuse. In addition to this devastating story, the relative also mentioned that turning to law enforcement for help would exacerbate the situation as footpath dwellers can barely avail protection from the authorities. “We don’t even have legal housing,” he said… “Reporting this to the cops would only cause more problems for us. Apparently that girl was Rageshwari’s sister,” he shrugged as we looked at the little girl revelling in her meal of dal and rice. This isn’t just a tale of one of the most heart-wrenching incidents that the RHA has witnessed. It is one of the many that never make it into the sea of mainstream media. Our government and society have gone to lengths to ensure that people like ourselves, working, college going girls have a host of preventive measures to choose from in the event of a probable assault. I can download an SOS app on my iPhone that will alert local authorities to come to my rescue, I can Whatsapp-message my location to my family and friends, and I can, for the most part, get through life without ever having to disguise my identity for protection. Gender morphing is an extremely grave alternative to prevent sexual abuse. The plight of children like Rageshwari and her sister is highly disconcerting for two primary reasons:
1) There is a tremendous lack of awareness in our civil society about street dwellers and their problems, especially children
2) The methods to redress social issues relating to girls and women do not always include those that comprise of the marginalized and underserved classes of society
So the next time we prioritize combating violence against girls in India, lets also think of the Rageshwaris and Mandvis that deserve our concern.
Photo Credits : Pooja Shah
Words By : Saloni Kapoor
Saloni is a development sector consultant and also the Mumbai city coordinator for Robin Hood Army (RHA)