PATNA, India – Until the end of 2013, Amna Khatoon was leading a stable, married life. Then she became interested in Islam.
In India, religious conversions, particularly of women, can be a highly contentious issue. Khatoon faced resistance from her family and community for her growing interest in a new faith. Her husband and parents drew up fake medical certificates to show she was mentally unsound, she says.
And when she decided to convert to Islam, an argument with her brother, husband and father ended with them pouring kerosene over her and trying to burn her alive. She escaped, but suffered burns.
When Khatoon reported her family’s abuse to the local police, the District Magistrate helped her get away by sending her to stay temporarily at a home for vulnerable people two hours away in Arwal – but she was the only woman there. After being moved to another temporary home, where, again, there were no other women, Khatoon ended up at the Gaighat After-Care Home for women in the state capital Patna in September 2014. The home was meant to offer her protection; instead, her problems only got worse. Khatoon says she was treated like a prisoner there. For three years, her repeated requests to go home were ignored.
“It is true that I had asked for temporary protection, but I didn’t want to be locked up,” she says. “I was treated as a mental patient and given high doses of medicine.”
Mounting Evidence of Mistreatment
India’s government has no official data on how many state-run or private care homes – commonly known as remand homes in India – there are in the country. By law, states should have separate homes based on gender, age and level of care. Some are rehabilitation homes for juvenile delinquents, while others focus on treatment and counseling for people with mental disorders; some are shelters for victims of domestic violence and trafficking, others for homeless women.
But due to lack of space and funding, some states have a shortage of homes, especially those catering to women. Of the 23 children’s care homes in Bihar state, only four are for girls. Often women of different ages, backgrounds and needs are forced to live together. Activists say this leaves the homes overcrowded, understaffed and rife with corruption, abuse and neglect. In a 2013 report, the Asian Centre for Human Rights described India’s juvenile homes as “hell holes” where sexual abuse and physical assault were common and often carried out with impunity. India’s media regularly reports stories of care homes that are unclean and corrupt.
Despite the mounting evidence of mistreatment, there has been no wide-reaching public investigation into the state of India’s care homes. So authorities and former residents – often referred to as inmates – are stepping forward to reveal the inhumane conditions in women’s care homes, as activists call for the government to step in.
An Abuse of Power
Imamuddin Ahmad, the former director of social welfare at the Department of Women and Child Development in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, says the state’s care homes for women lack institutional management.
“We have no proper counselors, social workers or outreach workers,” says Ahmad, who now works as a high-ranking officer in the revenue department in Karnataka state. “Since the government has no other place for women above 18 years, whenever a state agency comes in contact with any women in distress, they send her straight to a care home, and hence [the homes] are overcrowded.”
Ahmad says residents are often forced to work at the homes to make up for staff shortages. “It creates an environment where [residents] are treated unequally and there is an abuse of power by the administrators.”
Khatoon says while she was in Gaighat, she was made to care for the babies of women with mental disorders, cook for the residents and help with administrative work. For 10 months of work, she earned a salary of 4,500 rupees ($70), which she still hasn’t received.
Requests by News Deeply to speak to someone at Gaighat After-Care Home about the allegations of mistreatment of residents went unanswered. But a member of staff, speaking on condition of anonymity, says there are 278 women residing in the home, which was built to house 130. Twenty-one of the residents are the children of women living there.
The home is officially for juveniles, but with no other place for the state to house women over 18, adults and children live there together.
The staff member says the majority of the women and girls in the home suffer from mental disorders or have been declared mentally ill by family members. Others are survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence victims, homeless women, those accused of minor crimes, and teenagers who were sent to the home after getting married without their parents’ permission.
“Once a girl is in the care home, she is robbed off all her dignity and treated like a slave,” says women’s rights activist and lawyer Minu Kumari, who is handling the cases of some Gaighat residents who allege they are being unlawfully detained. “It is like being kept in a cage. The inmates live in an environment of constant fear, as the officials threaten them with dire consequences if they speak up.”
Khatoon says she lived in “unhygienic and filthy” conditions and was frequently beaten, once so badly she needed to go to the hospital. Residents were often denied food and water or clean clothes. “[The staff] mix water with the milk and give it to the women,” she says. “The women who are mentally ill need proper nutrition because they take strong medicines. But milk and rations are stolen by the staff.”
She says when doctors came to the home to give out medication, officials simply relayed the women’s symptoms to the doctors, who wrote the prescriptions without ever meeting their patients.
Calls for an Investigation
In July 2017, after three years in Gaighat After-Care Home, Khatoon was released when lawyer Syed Alamdar Hussain took up her case. The court directed authorities to allow her to leave, ruling that faith is a personal matter and cannot be used as grounds to hold someone at a care home against their will.
Hussain welcomes the decision, saying it recognizes a woman’s right to make her own decisions. But he says the court should have done more. “What about the abuse and atrocities being committed inside these homes? How many more women are wrongfully detained? The court could have set an example by ordering an enquiry to investigate such things.”
Anjum Mara, the former chief of the Bihar State Women Commission, was until recently responsible for overseeing the state’s women’s homes. She says she never saw obvious signs of abuse during her inspections at the home, which usually lasted about an hour. “As an officer, when I visited the home, I only saw things they showed me,” she says.
But Mara doesn’t discount the possibility that abuse is taking place in homes around the country. “In our society, women are systematically discriminated against. It is difficult to deny that helpless women are being abused inside the homes,” she says.
After leaving Gaighat, Khatoon went to live with friends who were also former residents of the home. She won’t say where, because she fears that her family might be looking for her. Her sons are still living with her husband.
As she looks for a job and waits to finally get the payment she’s owed for work she did in the care home, Khatoon thinks often about the women still being held there.
“Women are strong enough to look after themselves … No one should assume that they are weak and therefore should be kept in confinement,” she says.
“I know some of my friends who are still inside the home are also capable of leading a dignified life outside. I hope they can come out, too.”