I just finished reading Onaatah, a wonderful book by Paulami DuttaGupta. The book is based on the Indian National Film award-winning Khasi movie of the same name. Once I closed the book there was only one thought on my mind — that if only every rape survivor like Onaatah had an opportunity to heal the way she did, by going to a village, leading a simple life and being accepted by all with open arms.
Rape changes a woman’s life in the most hideous way possible, stigmatizing through no fault of hers — and that’s when life becomes a constant challenge.
First World countries have government-sponsored rehabilitation centers and psychiatric support centers for victims, both of which India largely lacks.
As set out in Onaatah the real battle for the victim starts when her courtroom ordeal ends and justice is delivered. Onaatah, who was a nurse, gave up her job, her marriage was called off and despite psychological counseling and the support of a wonderful family, started feeling a sense of aimlessness that transformed into suicidal tendencies.
Victims face grueling court proceedings
Indian law prohibits a rape victim’s identity from being revealed. But that doesn’t save her from stigmatization. From lodging the first information report (FIR), to having a medical examination to the courtroom battle, the victim has to deal with character aspersions, questions about her clothing, if the perpetrators were known to her. The victim is asked if she provoked the attack. And then, even if her name is not splashed in newspaper reports, she has to deal with the stares and the sniggers of neighbors and relatives, who inevitably find out about the attack.
Reflecting the rape victim’s reality, Onaatah’s father points out: “Onaatah, you have stopped seeing the good around you and this is the victory of rape culture … An act of rape finishes a woman’s chance to be happy forever. And aren’t you giving them just that chance? What is the use of locking those men in jail when you have given yourself the death sentence?”
There are stories of women such as Bhanwari Devi, who has been fighting for justice after being gang-raped in 1992 in a village in Rajasthan. She has received numerous awards for her courage, including the Neerja Bhanot Award of 100,000 rupees. Renowned Indian social reformer Sunita Krishnan was raped when she was 12 years old. But she made it her mission to help other rape victims and through her organization, Prajwala, fights sex trafficking of women and children. She received the 2014 Nelson Mandela-Graca Machel Innovation Award.
Suzette Jordan, who survived a gang rape in Park Street, Kolkata, once told me that she was expected to go to counseling sessions to deal with her trauma, but that her court battle took up most of her time. Suzette died of meningoencephalitis and did not get to witness the arrest of the accused in her gang-rape case in 2016, although three of the perpetrators were sentenced before that.
The consequences of rape can be overwhelming
But Suzette’s life turned into a constant battle for survival and social acceptance. “I was driven out of my rented home, I never got a proper job and I was even once asked to leave a restaurant because they did not want me on the premises. I was given immense support by the media, and actor Aamir Khan invited me to his show and I attended so many prestigious events but the stigma remained. At the end of the day, I remained a rape victim.”
It would be unfair to say there is no rape rehabilitation in India. This work has been largely the responsibility of the non-governmental organizations and it’s only recently that the government is waking up to the necessity of having separate centers to help women deal with the trauma of rape.
Almost a decade ago I visited a healing home for women of sexual abuse where they were taught skills so they could look forward to a future life. I was invited to a wedding at the home. The bride was a sexual-abuse survivor and I met a number of ex-inmates of the home who had come to attend the wedding. At least 30 weddings had taken place in that home, and the women who had married had overcome the trauma of abuse, built a life, a bank balance, accomplished goals and then married. The men who have married have also risen above the dominant social perceptions about a rape victim and have given the love and honor a woman deserves.
Compared with this home, a visit to the government-run Liluah home near Kolkata is like a living nightmare.
Compared with this home, a visit to the government-run Liluah home near Kolkata is like a living nightmare. Rescued women who have nowhere else to go are often sent to this place where there are reports of random abuse by administrators. The hygiene needs serious scrutiny, and whether this place can give the essential support to a rape survivor is a question that needs to be asked.
In India’s large cities similar government-run rehab centers rape victims are housed with the destitute and delinquents. But under the Nirbahaya Fund established in 2013, the ministry of women and child development has formulated a scheme for setting up One Stop Centres.
These centers are intended to support women affected by violence, in private and public spaces, within the family, community and at the workplace. Women facing physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and economic abuse, irrespective of age, class, caste, education status, marital status, race, and culture will get support and redress. Aggrieved women facing violence such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, trafficking, honor-related crimes, acid attacks or witch-hunting and who have reached out or been referred to the OSC will receive specialized services.
The centers provide:
- Emergency response and rescue services — OSC provides rescue and referral services to the women affected by violence. The woman is rescued from the location and referred to the nearest medical facility (public/private) or shelter home.
- Medical assistance — Women would be referred to the nearest hospital for medical aid/examination which would be undertaken as per the guidelines and protocols developed by the ministry of health and family welfare.
- Assistance to women in lodging complaints — Usually women trying to lodge an FIR for rape or sexual assault are harassed at the police station or often discouraged by the police to file the FIR. The would receive assistance for the OSC so that issues like this do not arise.
- Psycho-social support/counseling — A skilled counselor providing psycho-social counseling services would be available on call. This counseling process will give women confidence and support to address violence or to seek justice.
- Legal aid and counseling — To facilitate access to justice for women, legal aid and counseling would be provided at OSC through lawyers or the National/State/District Legal Service Authority.
- Shelter — The OSC will provide temporary shelter to aggrieved women. For long-term shelter requirements, arrangements will be made with Swadhar Greh/Short Stay Homes (managed/affiliated with government/NGO). Women, along with their children (girls of all ages and boys up to eight years of age) can get temporary shelter at the OSC for five days. The admissibility of any woman to the temporary shelter would be at the discretion of the center administrator.
- Video-conferencing facility — To facilitate speedy and hassle-free police and court proceedings the OSC will provide video conferencing facility (through Skype, Google conferencing, etc.). The aggrieved can record her statement for police courts from OSC itself using audio-video electronics.
One Stop Centres have opened in Andhra Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Daman & Diu (UT), Nagaland, Punjab, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttrakhand. There are plans to have more than 100 centers all over India. Although more effort is needed by the Indian government for the rehabilitation of rape victims, the One Stop Centres project is a positive step.
Gender-sensitization workshops are needed in colleges, universities, and workplaces where people will be told how, as a community, we can help sexual-abuse survivors heal. Some institutions already have moved in this direction but governmental initiatives and support are needed to spearhead gender sensitivity in India.