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(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of sexual assault and physical violence. Viewer discretion advised.)
"I am not scared of anything. Not of getting hurt, or studying. I am only scared of the dark." These were Chhoti Nirbhaya's first words to The Quint, when we met her after a gap of three years, in September 2021.
Chhoti Nirbhaya is like any other 10-year-old girl in her northwest Delhi neighborhood. She loves to draw and paint, often spends her time playing and fighting with her two siblings, and enjoys watching cartoons and movies.
She is also a fighter, a survivor.
Chhoti Nirbhaya was raped at the age of four allegedly by a man she called 'Rahul Bhaiya.' He had slashed her face with a blade and left her for dead along the railway lines close to her home.
She crawled back to her mother, and narrated everything that had happened to her.
Following the gruesome ordeal, she lost her name and gained the moniker 'Chhoti Nirbhaya'.
The Quint has been following up on Chhoti Nirbhaya's case and her life for many years now. In December 2015, less than two months after her rape, we started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for her immediate medical needs.
In September 2021, we returned to visit her and her family to find out how she was coping, how she was healing, and to speak to her about her dreams and aspirations.
"She is not afraid of anything. Nothing can scare her. In the beginning, she would tell her two siblings that 'if you get hurt, you will also get a lot of things.' She did not understand what she was saying. But now, she has become serious about it. She remembers everything. She feels ashamed to talk about it."Chhoti Nirbhaya's Mother
"I am not afraid of anything. Even if I fall down and get hurt I don't get scared. I am only scared of the dark," she reiterates.
When probed on why only the dark scares her, she says: 'Because they are there.'
A Day in the Life of Chhoti Nirbhaya
Chhoti Nirbhaya enjoys going to school. She loves playing with her friends and learning English and Punjabi.
The lockdown has, however, confined her siblings and her to their one-room house.
"I wake up in the morning and take a bath. I do some household chores and then study. I then send my homework to school. By then, it is evening time. I play a little and come back home. I then draw for a while."
But whenever she tries to run around and play, a seething pain catches up to her. In 2015, Chhoti Nirbhaya spent almost a month in the Safdarjung Hospital in the national capital, undergoing multiple surgeries. Along with physical scars, the pain too remains.
"If I talk a lot, I feel breathless. I also feel pain in my stomach and cannot keep my food down. I then have to lie down and rest," she says.
"She has difficulty in eating and drinking, and in digesting her food. Her liver functioning has reduced. She keeps telling me that it hurts every day. That 'mummy, it pains here, it pains there.' She also says that she feels pain in her genitals. I buy her tablets. But it is just going on..."Chhoti Nirbhaya's Mom
'Big Dreams For Her, But Struggling Financially': Chhoti Nirbhaya's Mother
The coronavirus pandemic has further halted the court case – which has seen no hearings for the last three years. But despite facing harsh financial struggles, the family says, they will continue to fight for justice.
"It has become a fearful environment after the incident. I don't leave all three kids alone for even one second. Even now, I am in the same state. I don't leave them. I take on work in such a way that I am able to return home by noon," she tells us.
Chhoti Nirbhaya's father is a daily wage earner. Her mom, a domestic worker, takes on work within these time constraints. With a monthly income of just Rs 5,000 and disruptions due to the pandemic, the family is able to afford only one phone for the online education of the three children.
For her parents, Chhoti Nirbhaya's access to education is a big worry – despite her being a bright, young student who is regularly appreciated by all her teachers.
"To study online on phone is difficult... or to even understand the answers. It hangs and if I keep using it, it hangs a lot and then it shuts down. Then it doesn't switch on. I use it first, then my sister uses it, and at night, around 9-10 pm, we send (our homework) to teachers."Chhoti Nirbhaya
While a new phone will help her study better, she is undeterred. She says she is determined to join the army.
"I really like the army. That's why I mostly watch army videos on the phone," she says with a smile, adding that she has already started her running practice so that she is 'physically fit.'
But nothing excites Chhoti Nirbhaya like her love for drawing and dressing up.
"I love drawing. I will draw anything I see. But I also love clothes – especially in black, white and yellow colours. But jeans-top is my favourite. I had two pairs of jeans. But now they don't fit me," she says with a shy smile.
The horrific incident is far from erased from the six-year-old's memory, but in her, there is a child with hopes, dreams, and aspirations – even as her family continues to fight for justice.