BY: KRUPA JOSEPH
Warning: Some of the stories shared in this article contain graphic details of sexual violence.
Parents start teaching children right and wrong at a young age. If you are a girl, chances are that you were handed an extra set of rules. You are taught that you have to act a certain way. You are told that ‘good girls’ should guard their sexuality with all of their life. Very quickly you learn that the responsibility of sexual assault falls on you. If you escape, kudos to you and if you fail to, you must have done something wrong.
You learn to adjust your neckline, and to not look straight into anyone’s eyes lest they view it as an invitation. Ignore the lewd comments, catcalls and those stares even though you can literally feel them undressing you with their eyes. You learn to switch lanes if you notice a man walking behind you, to carry pepper spray (some of my friends swear by chilli powder). You start making it a point to keep someone informed about your whereabouts at all times, to send a picture of the licence plate of the cab you hailed to someone, and to always be on alert, even if that means sending a dirty look to an innocent bystander. Better safe than sorry, right?
For a while I believed that this was only the case in India until I realised that women across the world face the same. Then again, as Vrinda Grover, an Indian Supreme Court lawyer who has worked for two decades on women’s issues says, “It’s a bad analogy. It just means there’s equal cause for concern everywhere.”
In 2001, 143,795 cases of crimes against women were reported, and since then India witnessed a steady annual rise, to a peak of 337,992 in 2014. However, in 2015, the number dropped to 327,394. The recorded number of rape cases across the country also decreased from 36,735 in 2014 to 34,651 in 2015. Yet, rape remains the fourth most common crime against women in India. As per the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) statistics, on average, every 15 minutes a woman is raped, while the ActionAid UK report suggests that four out of five women (79 per cent) in India have experienced some form of harassment or violence in public. However, this data doesn’t take into account that several (data suggests almost 90 per cent) cases go unreported.
There are several reasons why cases go unreported, the main one being the shame attached to rape and sexual assault. Victim blaming is extremely prevalent in the society and almost always the onus of the crime falls on the victim. Add to that the fact that almost always rape is impossible to prove and hence these cases drag on for months. Indian law also disregards marital rape as politicians believe, ironically enough, that it would destroy the sanctity of marriage. For a male victim, the stigma is even higher, because there are absolutely no laws that protect men against sexual assault or rape. All of these factors make it extremely difficult for victims to talk about their experiences – until now.
Urmila, a lawyer based in India, was irked by the status quo and the lack of a support system. However, the tipping point came in December 2012, when a young woman, Jyoti Singh, was brutally gang-rapped in Delhi. In the wake of the incident, people had taken to the streets shouting for justice, for never had the country witnessed such bestiality.
“The Delhi gang rape channeled a lot of the anger and despair I was already feeling. Being a lawyer, I was also exposed to the vagaries of the justice system. I have witnessed the ways in which survivors are shamed and blamed right from the time they decide to report an incident of sexual violence. After everything they had to go through, the survivors are put under a microscope and subjected to character assassination during trial. While the laws have become more progressive with the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, I cannot say with certainty that a lot has changed on ground. But legal reform is one step in a long journey and to be able to have an impact in the area of sexual violence, we need to work together with professionals in other disciplines like psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and the like,” says Urmila explaining how she came to create How Revealing, a website that allows people to anonymously post stories of their assault.
What’s with the name?
For those wondering the choice of the name, they have a very simple explanation. “The idea behind the name How Revealing comes from the kind of reactions that accompany an incident. For instance, after an incident of molestation outside a bar, a common reaction is ‘Did you see how revealing her top was? No wonder she was molested!’ We want to do our bit to change this normalization of and need for people to shame and appropriate blame on the person who experiences such incidents,”states their website. The varied accounts on the website, at the end of which most of them state what they were wearing at the time of the assault, quite sarcastically, once again asserts that it is never the victim’s fault, and that clothing is not the root cause of rape or molestation.
How does the website help sexual assault victims?
“How Revealing is our attempt at helping people deal with this cauldron of feelings – of fear, guilt, shame, anger, trauma, depression, apathy, etc. Every feeling is legitimate and those who have experienced sexual assault have a variety of ways of dealing with it. But often, at least in India, there is no outlet for these feelings. People bottle it up and keep them in a cupboard neatly locked up, hoping never to open it again,” they explain on their website.
The site also provides links to organizations and initiatives that offer support and assistance to those who seek it. The website has been created as a way to fill in the blanks in terms of instances of sexual violence and sexism. “ I hope in time, when we have enough stories on How Revealing, we can bridge some gaps and impact survivor support mechanisms in a positive way,” Urmila elaborates. Absolutely anyone, even a witness or the loved one of a victim is allowed to contribute. Because oftentimes they are unsure of how to respond and are dealing with their own feelings of guilt, shame and shock.”
“The website is the result of a collective effort between Urmila and two studios— Pigeon & Co., which is the Design and Strategy partner, and Penguin Thoughts, which is responsible for all things tech. “I am involved in the day-to-day running as well as curating and editing the stories. With respect to new decisions, collaborations or strategy, I work very closely with Saurabh, the co-founder of Pigeon & Co,” Urmila explains. They also have close connections with lawyers and psychologists who provide them with regular feedback. They mulled over this idea for over two years and finally launched on January 13, 2017, with the hope that people will realize they are not alone, that there are others with similar experiences, and those dealing with the myriad of emotions that comes as an aftermath to such incidents.
What needs to be done to change the narrative?
“I think the basic premise of How Revealing is establishing that one is not alone and that sexual assault may be much more common than we realize. Given that there is a dearth of reliable data when it comes to sexual violence in India due to under-reporting, we cannot be sure of the extent of the problem and the different kinds of people and situations in which incidents occur. So, How Revealing is offering people a platform to share and let it out. In time, with enough stories(although they will not be a replacement for hard data), we will be able to comment with more certainty on the exact mechanisms for policy change,” Urmila shares.
“Preliminarily though, the State needs to ensure that there are mental health practitioners who are there to assist survivors at every step of the way – just like legal aid and legal representation is a must, so too must psychological support be made mandatory. While the One Stop Crisis Centres are a welcome move post the Jyoti Singh gang rape and murder, it remains to be seen whether they are serving its purpose and making it easier for survivors to get access to the justice system. This also speaks to the broader issue of needing to destigmatize seeking mental health support as well, which we are trying to enable by having the support page with links to organizations that people can get in touch with if they so wish to,” she adds.
The website is a much-needed forum in a country where crimes against women are reported every two minutes. More than anything a safe, judgement-free zone for people of all genders, nationalities and ages is what survivors need to share their experiences, and connect with those who could understand your pain. If you or someone you know has faced such violence, it’s important to talk about it and please seek help – you are not alone.