Trigger Warning: This deals with child trafficking, child sexual abuse, and violence against women, and may be triggering for survivors.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality
‘Didi vo thodi pagal hai, usko samjhao kuch,’ (please explain things to her, she doesn’t quite understand), Asmina’s* mother alleges her daughter to be ‘out of her mind’. The 15-year-old bright girl rolls her eyes in return. She smirks at me, her smile though lights up her face, accentuating the beauty spot near her lips.
Asmi, as she is called, came to the police station with her 35-year-old boyfriend who she fell in love with, last week. She calls him Motu, his real name unknown to her. Her mother abhors the union and has dragged them to the station.
After the collapse of the plywood industry in Assam and its emergence in Kerala, plywood factories started employing skilled Assamese workers. Asmina, her mother, and her relatives all work at one of the many plywood companies in Perumbavoor, Kochi. The vast difference in language and culture apart from lack of education and accessibility makes it difficult for workers like them to benefit from the famed Kerala models of public governance, particularly police stations.
The police thus call interpreters like me for cases particularly involving women – to help translate the statement and file the F.I.R. In this case, thankfully, both mother and daughter know Hindi and immediately take turns to explain the situation.
Love or Statutory Rape?
She claims to love but the law says that it’s statutory rape. The accused frequently self-harms and threatens suicide. At the same time, her mother says that she will kill herself if Asmi marries this man. Asmina feels that she is stuck between their love. What should a 15-year-old do?
Asmina has never gone to school nor does she have any siblings or friends. She later revealed that she was married earlier, and in fact, lived with another man for a year before coming to Kerala. I wouldn’t call it a marriage per se as I figured that she was sold off. Asmina is unaware of the monetary aspects. All she says is “humare yahan aisa hi hota hai didi“ (it happens like this only, didi!)
After a long process of back-and-forth translations, Asmina was taken to the nearest government hospital for a medical examination. Amendments to the Criminal Code through Section 164A and subsequent guidelines by the Ministry lay down the procedures for the medico-legal care of a survivor. The nurses greeted me with an ‘oh it’s you again’ smile. Her mother is silently crying in a corner while Asmina, on the other end of the room, is appearing shy and giggling, as nurses tell her to remove her clothes. All of us are waiting for the doctor.
The doctor then fills up pages of the examination, and confirms the case details again, seemingly like she deals with this every day. Later when we were a little farther from the policewoman, the doctor tells me as if she is revealing a secret, “I feel bad for them. They come to Kerala for better living conditions. I see so many young couples who come for cheaper and better treatment but are minors. It may be common culture there but what can we do here? Many times, we call the police.”
During this entire ordeal, what was heart-breaking is how she laughed and shied away from during medical examination. Her innocence was intact, with zero idea of the gravity of the situation she was in. “Maasik me kiya ho to phir koi problem nahi na didi?” (If she, did it during her menstrual cycle, then it’s not a problem, right?), her aunt inquires. Her boyfriend also bought her pills which she took every time they had sex. There is no way she will get pregnant then, right?
As a first for me, right outside the Gynaecology department I stood with two 30-something mothers, explaining pregnancy, pills, condoms…Yes, I notice the irony.
They plan to go to Assam soon. Asmina thinks that her mother has another ‘marriage‘ in mind for her. The mother denies it. Is she safe with her mother? Do I even have the right to question that? I am conflicted. I always thought shelter homes or living alone is worse for minors, particularly an impressionable young girl like her. But Asmina will get home, food, clothes and even access to education in a shelter home here in Kerala. This sounds like a way better option than what her mother has in mind. Or am I wrong?
How do we decide what’s good for her?
What does she want? What are her dreams? Does she have any?
I am sitting in the court right now. We are alone for the statement – Asmina and I. The stack of papers on her table doesn’t make the Judge rush us. She still has the patience to write every little detail down. I wonder why they still have to hand write. Her foot tapping distracts me. Asmina narrates the story, again – about her boyfriend, and her mother. I am assuming that she thinks the narrative about their love to be better, even when that’s admission to rape.
We walk outside and Asmina beams up to me thanking me for my help. I wonder how I helped her. The judge stops me to translate a few questions for another case, of a young man from Bihar with bruises all over his face. I had to decline and we continued walking toward Asmina’s mother and aunt who were waiting at a distance.
Asmina bids me goodbye and walks past them, huffing angrily. I watch her as I explain to her family what happens next. The police have assured them that her boyfriend is locked up, and will never see Asmi again. I walk back alone, dreading the next time I see her (if I do). Will she be, okay?
About the Author: Disha Devdas is a 2021 India Fellow working with CMID (Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development) in Ernakulam, Kerala, as a part of her fellowship. She is helping the team make possible adequate access to healthcare for the community.
Image source: Favor_of_God from Getty Images Free for Canva Pro