“Replace words like rape victim with rape survivor”

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Preethi Herman, Campaigns Director, India, change.org Photo: Ankit Agrawal
Preethi Herman, Campaigns Director, India, change.org Photo: Ankit Agrawal

While we are debating and protesting about the rape of a five-year-old child in Delhi, a four-year-old girl was raped in Tamia, a tribal area in Madhya Pradesh. Rapes are being reported not only from urban parts but also rural areas. How do you read the situation?

Sexual assaults are not products of new age technology or development. Sexual abuse has been there in our society for so long that our society has become tolerant to violence. There is an open informal meeting being organised at the Indian Habitat Centre in Delhi on 23 April, where one of the discussions will be on why men sexually assault women despite being aware that it is a punishable offence. There are a lot of theories- some people say these are policy issues, others say these people are quite frustrated with their lives.

The stigma and shame attached to rape discourages women to protest and speak out openly in the family. Is this also what encourages men to assault?

Yes, to some extent. But even if you convince your family, when you go to the police station, the first thing a cop asks is “Do you really want to bring this shame upon your family?” There are various steps at many levels. I was talking to a friend who told me about how she was molested by a family friend. She was upset and confronted her molester who apologised and blamed it on alcohol. What was astonishing was that her friends advised her to move on as the molester had apologised. These are complicated issues, but it’s good that protests are happening across the country bringing these issues to the fore. People are coming out and saying enough is enough. We still need to do a lot more to fight patriarchy. Yesterday, a rickshaw-puller raped a 12-year-old girl in Delhi. When the neighbours got to know about the incident, they beat him up. There are both right and wrong reactions, but now there is generally a sense of anger and solidarity. I think that is the most poignant result from this struggle.

Do you believe that these protests and the media coverage to the rape cases have brought sexual assault as a topic of discussion into homes?

That’s true. Across class and different levels of awareness in society, people are saying that rape isn’t acceptable. The change in dialogue where people replace words like ‘rape victim’ with ‘rape survivor’ is a huge thing because earlier women were shunned and called filthy and dirty. Now, because of the movement, people are overlooking these prejudices and looking at her as a survivor and channelling their anger to the people who perpetrated it. This in itself is a big first step which did not happen much in the past.

Despite the case of the five-year-old victim being similar to the 16 December Delhi gangrape, the electronic media’s consistent coverage and the police’s undeterred callousness, why are fewer people protesting on streets as compared to 16 December?

There was a certain amount of outrage against the level of aggression meted out to the 23-year-old paramedic student. Even though the case can be compared to the present one, it also depends on how it was presented. At that point of time, a lot of youngsters, especially girls related to her situation. Every female has faced sexual assault in her life whether in the form of touch, male gaze or lewd comments. The sense I got then was that this is something that could’ve easily happened with me. In the present case (of the five-year-old girl), for the first few hours there was a certain sense of disillusionment. How should we react? Who should we pin down? And then, the anger was directed towards the cops. The anger is very spread-out.

After the 16 December incident, many people started petitions on Change.org. The one by Namita Bhandare, asking for a more holistic change got over 6,50,000 signatures not only from India, but from all around the world. It was an overwhelming experience for us to compile and deliver the sheer number of signatures to the concerned authorities.

It is interesting to see how society is grappling with the whole challenge of safety of women in society. All our reports say that this continues to happen every day and there is virtually no feasible steps taken to create a permanent solution. A lot of people are not coming out because people are disappointed that nothing concrete came out of the December protests.

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