INDIA – December 9 2022

Leena and Devi healing from trauma

Over the past years in India, a rape has been reported every 16 minutes and every fourth victim has been a minor. In 2019, approximately 15,600 girls were abducted and compelled to marry their abductors, according to India’s National Crime Research Bureau’s figures.

Leena* and Devi* were ten and seven years old in 2021, when they were brought to an SOS Children’s Village. Their mother had been kidnapped at the age of 13. She was kept in captivity by a man much older than her and raped. She was barely 15 when she gave birth to Leena.  

Leena and Devi’s biological father was on the run from the law. The girls had no relationships with him. They were kept in obscure rented rooms in one city after another, forced to pretend they were part of a family, so they could be hidden in plain view. 

“He would bring us food sometimes, but we mostly stayed hungry. We never asked him for anything because we were scared,” says Leena, now 11, telling her story as she sits with her sister and their village counsellor Anjali Kumari. 

The only happy time Leena remembers is the time she would go to school. “One day, I would be having a good time at school and the next day, he would say: ‘Pack your things, we are moving’. I would never see my classmates, friends or teachers again.” 

Leena grew up in towns whose names she cannot remember. The lack of stability was crushing for her, as she never stayed anywhere long enough to make friends. Most of the time, she and her sister did not get proper food. Devi shows signs of stunted growth as per her natural age because of improper nutrition during her childhood.  

When Leena was old enough to understand and start questioning the frequent moving, her mother confided in her. She told Leena how she had been abducted, held against her will and not allowed to contact her parents. Her mother said that, one day, when she was old enough, she would go to the police and report him so that they could all run away. 

A few days before the mother turned 18, she found a way to reach the nearest police station and fill a report. The girls and her were immediately taken to safety and their abductor got arrested. The mother, under huge mental distress, was sent to her native village to be with her family. Leena and Devi were brought to the SOS Children’s Village in Bhimtal.  

Samiya Fazilat, a senior staff member of the village, says both sisters are now doing well. “They have friends, they watch out for one another, and they have connected and bonded with their caregiver. The older sister is quieter and it takes her a while to trust new people, especially men. This is normal given the traumatizing environment she grew up in. We watch out for signs of low self-esteem in children with these kinds of experiences. We do our best to give them all the care they need so that they can overcome the trauma.” 

Across India, SOS Children’s Villages supports the mental health of children in alternative care in various ways. “Each child gets a different development plan suited to their needs,” says village director Deepak Saxena. “The overall objective is to give them a good future and heal their trauma as much as we can. Here, in the village, we have an eco-system designed to provide care for children who would find it difficult to thrive in society. Indian society still tries to shame the victims of sexual violence instead of the perpetrators, which is why most people keep such trauma hidden. The mother of these girls, just a young girl herself, may find it impossible to build a life with them. But we encourage her and children to stay in touch so that their bond stays strong.”  

In India, children who grow up outside the conventional family structure, without a healthy father figure, are viewed with sympathy, contempt or even hatred. They are rarely treated equally. This can be very difficult for children who naturally want to blend in. They can form a negative self-image based on the signals they receive from society. 

Children who witness sexual violence growing up are more vulnerable to it both during their childhood and in adulthood. They do not have protective families around, so predators can take advantage of them more easily. They also lack healthy relationship models which would help them recognize threats of violence and protect themselves from abuse. 

When Devi and Leena first arrived to the SOS Children’s Village, they would cry all nights and miss their mother. Their caregiver Heera* was there with them during these nights, fixing them a cup of hot milk or just sitting next to them and letting them know she was there in case they wanted to talk about a bad dream or share their feelings. In the village, Devi and Leena do not have to relive the trauma of their past. Their identity cards have the name of the village director, their legal guardian. They have many other children around them to play hopscotch and go to the park with. They go to one school and play with the same friends every day. This stability has gradually brought a sense of security and healing to the girls’ lives. They see their caregivers as consistent and supportive. This has improved their health and emotional well-being. 

“You should see Leena in a school assembly playing drums,” says caregiver Heera. “She is such a star. She is such a tiny girl but she stands up on a stool to play the bongos. She just doesn’t miss a beat. Devi, the older one, loves to dress up in her fancy frocks. If I get her a special dress, she wants to wear it every day. These children are so resilient that watching them gives me hope for the world”. 

All names and identities in this article have been changed for the privacy of the children. SOS Children’s Villages stays committed to support the children’s reunification with their mother once it is possible.

Text and photo by Pearl Sandhu