WOMEN AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN INDIA: THE NEED FOR SYSTEMATIC DE-SILENCING

“I was married to a man in Rajasthan when I was sixteen. I have borne savage torture that I am afraid to put into words. I do not know what love is. I do not want to know what love is.”

Her words moved like a row of silent ants, stealthily up my spine.

What do I tell you? Do I tell you about the way her hands were tied behind her back and kerosene was poured over her body, as her husband tried to set her on fire? Do you want to know the number of women he brought home and raped in front of her? remembers.

I cannot disclose her name or the setting I met her in, but I can say that the forty-five minutes I spent with her were an exercise in holding my breath. This woman has now mercifully been able to divorce her husband after a series of painful court hearings, but her story is just one variation of the same story that rings through innumerable homes, villages, towns and cities across India.

According to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau, India, 36,735 rape cases were registered in 2014. The conviction rates for Rape cases in India were 44.3 percent in 1973, 37.7 percent in 1983, 26.9 percent in 2009, 26.6 percent in 2010 and 26.4 percent in 2011. But many more cases are thought to go unregistered, tucked behind the creases of faces, bleeding from the edges of our newspapers. Journalist and writer Madiha Kark, in her thesis Understanding Indian and Pakistani Cultural Perspective and Analyzing U.S. News Coverage of Mukhtar Mai and Jyoti Singh Pandey (2013), estimates that 54% of rape crimes go unreported.

Arguably, the chronic ‘shaming’ of victims, so systemic in Indian culture, is partly responsible for the lack of reporting. Shame is woven into both community and legal responses to reports of sexual violence, and has silenced countless voices, teaching women to tolerate monstrosity and ‘make peace’ with the way their bodies can be invaded, used and tortured.

Here are five headlines from reputed media houses about rape in India this year:

  1. The Huffington Post India, 24 February, 2016: Women Passengers Were Dragged Out Of Vehicles and Raped Near Murthal in Haryana: Report
  2. The Guardian, 8 March, 2016: Girl, 15, raped and set on fire in India
  3. The Indian Express, 13 March, 2016: 4-yr-old raped, murdered, body dumped in pit in Powai, Two held
  4. The Telegraph, 3 May, 2016: India in shock after brutal rape and murder of ‘Untouchable’ woman
  5. The Indian Express, 5 May, 2016: Kerala: 19 year old nursing student gang raped

Yet there are many other women and girls who never make it to the headlines. In particular, women from grassroots communities, where media houses don’t exist and the idea of justice remains a rumour. For them, ‘courage’ is less about speaking out against the harm done to their bodies, and more about not speaking out. It is about living with torment, without complaint, each and every day of their lives. Because they have no other choice if they are to survive.

For them, ‘courage’ is a parcel they pass down to their daughters with the words “Do not resist” written across it. For them, ‘dignity’ is silence. For a woman who worships lajja or shame as the pinnacle of feminine virtue, rape is not even part of her lexicon. It is the man’s birthright. It is something she is meant for. Her body is a territory over which he can assert his lust and dominion. Consent does not even come into the equation, for he is her master: what right does she have to refuse him sex, or anything else that he wants?

I am still haunted by a powerful statement by the victim in the Brock Turner rape case: ‘I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt’. Every day across the world, there are so many women who become victims of this irreversible hurt, and a majority of them never breathe a word about it.

Silence and shame are huge factors in the continuing phenomenon of sexual violence. Sex trafficking, sexual abuse of children, marital rape, eve-teasing and slut-shaming are real issues in the Indian subcontinent. Marital rape is still not a crime in India.

It is just not down to the victims to challenge and change this: it is down to all of us.

 

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