In India, survivors of rape are often violated three times: once by the perpetrators of the crime, again when the police fail to take action on their behalf, and yet again, when they are shamed and shunned by their communities and families as unfit for marriage.
At night, vivid memories of sexual abuse haunt Smita Sharma’s dreams. During the day, they motivate her to document the stories of rape victims in India.
Ms. Sharma was 18 when a professor molested her one day after school. But when she spoke out about it, she was shamed and ostracized by teachers and classmates. That experience is all too common in India, where sexual abuse and rape are widespread but rarely discussed. Her younger cousin, Kamalika Das, also spoke out after an attack by a schoolmate and was blamed for reporting it.
Since then, Ms. Sharma has befriended and photographed dozens of rape victims and their families, collecting their horrifying testimonies, which include gang rapes of children and young teenagers, murder, police indifference and victims being forced to marry their attackers.
“They are shamed and victimized for life,” she said. “I want to give them a voice and start a discussion. We have to talk about this and we have to come up with a solution.”
Ms. Sharma is crowdfunding her project on Kickstarter to continue photographing and also to make a full-length film. Her images and testimonies of rape survivors are in the exhibit “Unearthed stories of Moral Courage In The Face Of Sexual Violence” in Delhi from Dec. 16 through Dec. 23. Ms. Sharma’s work was partially funded by the non profit Proof: Media For Social Justice .
Ms. Sharma traveled widely to meet her subjects, spending hundreds of hours outside courtrooms and government hospitals, reading books while waiting for victims and their families to pass by. She became adept at spotting families of victims by their body language at the hospitals, she said.
“There are no private rooms for rape victims to be examined and interviewed, and the victims are often terrorized by the mistreatment of doctors,” she said. “There is no empathy. “
She also traveled to remote villages where small local nongovernmental organizations or health workers helped her contact rape survivors. To avoid being attacked herself, she sometimes disguised herself as a pregnant woman or took a friend with her. When she meets the survivors, she talks about her own experiences and often spends many days with them.
“I just sit with them, I talk with them and I eat with them,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t photograph at all. There have been other times when I could not shoot because I was crying too much and could not focus.”
Ms. Sharma added that she rarely talks with her subjects about their rapes but wants to know who they are as human beings — because “first they’re a girl or a woman and then there’s what’s happened to them.”
She discovered that girls in rural areas are often raped when they go outside to relieve themselves at night or in early morning — a problem that could be alleviated with a comprehensive program to build indoor toilets. Others are attacked while walking long distances through remote areas while returning home from high school. Wider availability of bicycles for poor girls would help protect them, Ms. Sharma said.
The conversations Ms. Sharma has been having with strangers became even more painful last January when her 17-year-old cousin, Ms. Das, committed suicide by jumping out of a seventh-floor window. The girl’s death was a result of the reaction to her molestation and the verbal and emotional abuse she suffered after she spoke up, Ms. Sharma said. This caused Ms. Sharma to redouble her efforts to expose the crisis of sexual assault.
In recent years, disturbing and widely publicized accounts of several gang rapes have begun to make the subject of sexual assault somewhat more visible in Indian society. But in her research, Ms. Sharma found that most of her subjects had either been accused of bringing dishonor upon their families or blamed by the police and neighbors for provoking their rapes.
“The problem is not how women dress but how women are objectified by a patriarchal and feudalistic mind-set,” she said. “First the father owns them and then a husband owns them. They’re not treated as equals but second-class citizens.”
Six incidents of rapes have been reported everyday on an average in Delhi this year
If statistics are anything to go by, a host of steps to ensure women’s safety since the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapist exactly three years ago have failed to bring about the desired changes in the national Capital.
As many as six incidents of rapes have been reported everyday on an average in Delhi so far this year. This is a threefold increase compared to 2012. Incidents of molestations have gone up by almost seven times as against 727 such complaints that year.
While these figures are alarming in themselves, it is the different facets of these crimes, which raise concerns. One-third of all rape victims last year were minors. Some of these victims are children as young as one-year-olds.
Only a few months ago, a 25-year-old youth was caught for allegedly killing and raping over two dozen children in Delhi. For over a year since he went on the crime spree, police were clueless about the identity of the assailant and could not even connect the dots until police stumbled upon him.
Since the horrific gang-rape in December three years ago, there has been a spate of rapes involving two or more men. Last year, for example, every three days there was at least one gang rape reported from the city.
It is also the audacious manner in which some of these crimes are committed, which have led to women continuing to feel unsafe. In one case, an NGO employee walking to her home in a residential colony in Outer Delhi was pulled off the road, killed by two youths who went on to rape the lifeless body.
In another incident less than a month ago, two men entered into a fashion designer’s home in Shahbad Dairy, raped and killed her, drove her to a forest where they again raped the dead body. In just over a year, there are four cases of rapists assaulting dead bodies.
Police claim that over two-third of rapes are committed by people known to the victims, something the police can do little to prevent. They also say that the increased complaints of crimes against women reflect their approachable nature and their determination not to turn away a complainant.
But women activists point to low convictions to allege a failed justice-delivery mechanisms. This year, there has been only one conviction in a rape case so far. Last year, police could procure nine convictions and 65 in the year before that.
Despite the dismal situation, women’s safety in Delhi figures poorly in the Parliament discussions. Despite Delhi’s notoriety as the rape Capital, only two of the 442 questions asked by Delhi’s Parliamentarians in the Parliament between the budget session 2014 to the budget session 2015 were concerning women, reveals a study by NGOs Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Praja.