By Shambhavi Saxena:
December 16th, 2012 was a tipping point. The anger and outrage empowered many to take a stand in their personal lives, to call out against sexual violence, and hold the concerned authorities accountable. Two years hence, the personal accounts of seven women from different cities who’ve experienced sexual harassment, revealed a number of reasons that compel women not to report cases to anti-harassment cells or to the police, even though the consensus is for reporting, rather than against.
“I was contemplating whether to file a report or not, a couple of days passed, and then a few more, and I eventually didn’t. I just didn’t want to think about it.” – Aparajita Singh, New Delhi
“Women like me who just prefer to walk out of the situation never let anyone know about it.” said 23-year-old Amreesh Bhullar, who witnessed a man removing his pants to reveal his private parts in front of the gates of Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun, where she studies. “Why put in so much of energy and time on such desperate people, you always have the option of ignoring it and avoiding further mental stress. I have never raised my voice as I am scared of what people’s reaction would be. I don’t want to be the one embarrassed at the end of it and have people singling me out by saying, ‘she’s the one with whom it happened’”
Rose Merlyn Nag, 22, a graduate from Lady Shri Ram shared her personal experience of sexual harassment- a balloon filled with semen was thrown at her during Holi, in her own locality. She raises a valid concern about the safety of the complainant: “I can’t drag these guys to the police station. It would be too much commotion unnecessarily. Indian mentality presents itself at the station, they will say theek hai beta, koi nahi, chale jao (It’s okay, just forget it and move on). What would I have said in the station? They’d probably just laugh at me. They’d give me false assurance. They’d threaten the boys but not take formal action”.
Fear of inaction from the police and other authorities has a real effect on the decision of women to report sexual violence. 21-year-old postgraduate student, Saswati Chatterjee describes how she was harassed on two occasions while travelling in a Volvo bus in Kolkata, “Once a man pressed his genitals against my shoulder. Another time, a man was masturbating while looking at me.” Her immediate reaction was of “shock and disgust. Mostly I don’t know what to say or do.” Saswati’s fear is that the people to whom she has to report are not likely to take her seriously. “The condition of the Kolkata Police is really bad. They are apathetic and unwilling to register complaints. It also doesn’t help that our CM tries to put these down as conspiracies (Park Street Rape), obviously women are not encouraged to report sexual harassment. People are encouraged not to take women seriously.”
Student of TERI University, Aprajita Singh shared a similar story of harassment in a bus in New Delhi, saying: “I pushed him away and started yelling.” In her case it was only the conductor who reacted at all, and even then the offender was allowed to remain on the bus. “I was so shocked” she says, “and to be honest, super scared. I just sat down, and was just trying really hard not to break down and cry. I skipped my stop and didn’t get off till he had, because I was scared he’d follow me home.” She eventually chose not to report the incident.
A Chin (Burmese) refugee living in Delhi since 2009, having fled from Myanmar (where the national army has been committing atrocities for over forty years) finds that life in India is not at all the escape she had expected. Her identity as a woman puts her further at risk. “Many refugee women hate it here and want immediate resettlement because we don’t feel safe. There was a case in the community when a Burmese woman was raped by an Indian man – the woman couldn’t even speak out, out of shame. It is the rapist who should feel shame, but people did not want anyone to know she had been raped. Even though we approached the police, they didn’t take any action.”
In her blog, 25-year-old environmental activist and development professional, Sonam Mittal details how her attempt to get justice after being molested by a hotel manager was actively thwarted by a Goa Police Inspector. Sonam was made the object of victim-blaming and moral policing: “The first thing he said to me was that girls from decent family don’t roam out late in the night drinking and partying with friends.” She received no support when she wanted to take up the case, and was forced to write a statement that would absolve the inspector of the duties he swore to undertake when he put on that uniform.
The practicality of reporting is called into question by the circumstances these women were in. Arshia Dhar, a Masters student at Jadavpur University who was catcalled by cyclists the day we interviewed her, has “no faith in our law” but she still believes reporting will “at least create some kind of awareness keeping in mind the bigger picture of social security for women.” Some are not as optimistic. Amreesh very plainly says that reporting sexual harassment “becomes a task for the woman” and even though “it is ultimately going to benefit the society it isn’t smooth sailing for the complainant, not by any measure.” Saswati backs this up, “I come from a family of lawyers and we all know how long-drawn legal procedures are, and nobody wants a prolonged problem. If I ever did register a complaint, my family would support me, but only up to a point.”
Five of these seven women were in favour of reporting cases, but in the end, didn’t perceive the system to be welcoming enough, practical, or even safe. Much has to change also about the attitude of the public towards victims themselves. However, if women do make the choice to report, they should be able to do so in ways that are safe.
Have you ever reported an incident of sexual violence to the police? Fill in this short form to share your experience and join the #readytoreport movement. Amnesty International India has recently launched ReadyToReport.in, as part of an effort to ensure that women who choose to report sexual violence can do so safely, with dignity and without facing prejudice.