A three-person committee, set up in the wake of the Delhi gang-rape incident to consider legal reforms, were so moved by the tale of an abused and unpaid child maid, who had given testimony for their report, that they gave her the equivalent of $2,750 out of their own pockets to make up for unpaid wages. The committee members also offered to pay for psychological counseling and finance her education.
The 17-year-old, whose tale was featured in a Washington Post article Sunday about the abuse of child maids in India, had worked as a domestic servant for two years without being paid, and had twice been raped by her trafficker when she dared to complain.
The trafficking and abuse of millions of children, employed as domestic servants, is one of many societal problems to which middle-class India often seems to turn a blind eye. But the committee, led by retired Justice J.S. Verma, wants to use the revulsion over the Dec. 16 gang rape incident to give women and children everywhere in the country greater protection.
Invited to testify before the committee, the girl had been bashful while giving a moving account of her suffering. Later, over tea and biscuits, she had started to relax, panel member Gopal Subramaniam said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“I asked her, ‘Don’t you want to study and become a rocket scientist?' ” he said. “The smile we saw was extremely emotional for us.”
The money, he said, was “a small token of our respect” for the girl. “It was not based on charity; it was based on the principle of reparation. We have taken away her rights and society has to repay her.”
The account of the gift was first related by an activist present at the meeting, before Subramaniam confirmed it.
The government established the committee in response to public anger over the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in New Delhi, asking it to look into whether changes were required in India’s penal code.
The committee worked long hours for 29 days to prepare its report, taking in around 80,000 suggestions from the public, interviewing scores of civil society experts and activists, and taking in opinion from all around the world, including Harvard Law School. None of the panelists received any money for their work, said Subramaniam, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and former solicitor general of India.
In its final report, it rejected calls for the death penalty for rapists, instead setting out a damning indictment of the apathy and criminality among politicians, police and even the army that made women and children unsafe in modern India. A failure of governance, it said, was the problem, something that would not be solved by “knee-jerk” legislation.
“This is a chance for a psychological transformation of society,” Subramaniam said, adding that the peaceful, nationwide protests expressed a deep desire for change, “as wanting a new order, wanting a new dispensation.”
Human rights activists were delighted that a panel made strong recommendations to criminalize human trafficking and impose stiff penalties on public servants involved in the trade.
There was also delight that the panel demanded equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, spoke out strongly against the widespread abuse of minors in childrens’ homes and demanded a review of a controversial law that gives members of the armed forces virtual immunity from prosecution in conflict zones, even if they are accused of raping civilians.
The question now is what happens next to the committee's recommendations, said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately, the government often tends to sit on things.”