Inside the premises of a private house in Srinagar’s Rajbagh area, Ahmed, 12, sits propped up against a dirt-stained wall. His unwashed clothes give the impression that personal hygiene is of little value. Ahmed and the other children living in the house have been sent to the city by their parents to pursue religious studies.

The home that Ahmed (not his real name) lives in is registered as a trust and already faces charges for not providing proper care and protection to the children. “Besides protection, children in the house also suffer inadequate ventilation, unsafe drinking water, and inadequate toilet arrangements,” said Justice Hussnain Masoodi, who is closely following claims of child abuse in the Kashmir Valley.

Masoodi and a handful of others are at the forefront of a battle to rescue children from private homes spread across the state. These homes are run illegally, and cases of abuse have emerged periodically. Most of them, state authorities say, are not registered under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme and routinely flout the Jammu & Kashmir Juvenile Justice Act.

For those like Shareef Bhat, general manager at ‘Save the Children’, a key organization working on child rights in the Kashmir Valley, the very existence of such private houses is unjustifiable. “These houses should not exist. I am strongly against the parents who admit their kids in such houses. When these children have their own parents, why send them away at such a young age?” he asks.

This is a case that was only revealed publicly last month. But many social welfare groups have begun to take up the issue.

Traumatized children

One such organization was the Women’s Collective Group (WCG), a non-profit which discovered the wretched situation the children lived in on a preliminary visit. “The house lacks basic facilities,” said Ambreen, a member of WCG. “There is no security, and no one intervened when we stepped into the house. Who is responsible for their protection?”

As the Women’s Collective started investigating the house, disturbing facts started to emerge. “We came to know that the children were made to beg during the Islamic month of holy Ramadan,” Ambreen said.

Their investigation revealed that people in charge of the home also pushed children to steal once it got dark. “The boys come out during the night and steal things. Recently, we caught one such boy who was stealing a wire from the neighborhood on someone’s direction in the house,” one local resident said. As the WCG took note of the activities in the house, they interviewed the students to gather evidence. “(The) girls were very scared as they are emotionally traumatized so they refused to talk. The boys were ignorant,” said advocate Sabreen Malik, who also works with WCG. “We tried to contact their parents but they didn’t respond.”

The Women’s Collective approached the government and all girls at the home were evacuated to a government house in Shalimar district in Srinagar. Afrooza Ahmed told Asia Times the superintendent of the government house said: “The girls refused to talk about the psychological trauma they had faced in the house. We have all the details of the girls but we cannot share them until the case reaches its conclusion.”

Shreen (name changed) was 18 years old when she ran away from a private house in Ganderbal district in central Kashmir. After facing physical abuse from her teachers she retaliated and slapped one of her teachers who used to beat her for no reason.

“I was very young when my father sent me to a private house. I always missed my mother. The teachers beat us routinely at night. So, one day I ran away and went back home,” Shreen said. She had to face the wrath of her parents on returning but refused to go back to the home.

Many children like her are forced to study and live in these private homes which lack even basic facilities.

Child abuse seems to be on the rise in the Kashmir Valley as more cases have emerged at the state government’s child welfare department.

A widespread issue

Munaza Gulzar, chairperson of the state’s child welfare committee (CWC) said: “There is a guideline that a juvenile should be classified and segregated according to their age such as 0-6 years, 6-12 years, etc.”

The committee is presently working on rehabilitating girls from the home in Rajbagh as the place was not functioning in a normal way. “Boys are also not doing well and we might shift them to a government house very soon,” Munaza said.

According to official data held by the CWC, there are 70 private home currently registered under The Integrated Child Protection Scheme.

“Most of the owners have registered these houses as trusts or NGOs [non-government organizations]. They put up some bylaws and in one they offer to provide shelter to children and religious education. This is an easy registration,” Munaza said. “But as far as these homes are concerned there are certain norms and guidelines that have to be followed.”

When homes are raided, their owners often come up with excuses for not providing proper facilities for the children that live there. They are then told they either have to register with the Integrated Child Protection Scheme and follow the standards laid down in the Jammu & Kashmir Juvenile Justice Act or they have to settle down, she said.

“Child abuse does not always involve sex. Child abuse also deals with begging, verbal abuse, emotional abuse [and] physical abuse,” says Munaza. “In this case, children were forced into begging.”