To celebrate CSJ's 4th birthday, we kicked off the third annual Lend a Hand campaign. From 13 August to 5 September, we're sharing stories from our staff about children we help to show how lending a hand changes lives. Click here to learn about the campaign.
The first time Leela* was scheduled to testify before the judge, she couldn’t speak. The thought of answering strangers’ questions about her rape petrified her.
By the next hearing, CSJ Lawyer Neetu had joined the case. She had only one hour at the court to make Leela feel comfortable and open up about her abuse.
“Earlier I was thinking I would just represent children legally,” Neetu said. “But now I realize the legal work comes later. Helping the child to speak out about sexual abuse comes first.”
Leela was given for adoption as a baby, but her adoptive parents died before she turned 12. She then lived with her adoptive uncle and aunt, where the family exploited her for domestic work and did not allow her to attend school. A son in the house raped Leela several times, and when she told her aunt and cousin, they beat her. Eventually Leela ran away and reported the rape to police.
She told this to Neetu in a private part of the courtroom, through sobs and tears.
“I think she had hope and felt I wouldn’t judge her,” Neetu said. “In these cases of sexual abuse, where children feel reluctant to share with anyone, they need to feel that someone is there for them.”
Leela was very nervous waiting for her testimony, so Neetu held her hand. To prepare her, Neetu explained what types of questions Leela would be asked and encouraged her to tell the truth.
“If a child does not speak during the testimony, then the case becomes weak and eventually has a huge impact in the delivery of justice,” Neetu said. “We have to motivate [victims] to say confidently what has happened to them. When you are a human rights lawyer, these things are a part of your job.”
The court allowed Leela to testify through live video conferencing, provided by the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, so that Leela would not see the accused. At first the defence lawyer protested, but when Neetu explained the POCSO rules, the defence understood and agreed it was best. Unlike her first hearing, Leela sat comfortably and completed her testimony well. She was calm and relaxed leaving the courtroom.
“This is a special case for me because after her successful testimony, I really felt that we are making a difference in the justice delivery system as well as in people’s lives,” Neetu said. “It is a meaningful work that we are doing.”
To lend a hand to girls like Leela, donate here.
*Name changed to protect identity.