With The Recent Rise In Sexual Crimes In India, I Knew It Was Time To Share My Story

By Pooja Kannan

*TW: mention of rape, sexual assault*

Despite seeing so much progress, the rise in women’s rights movements, and feminist voices championing progress for women, sexual crimes are still a major problem in my home country of India. According a report from the Public Health Foundation of India, India’s rape-related crime rate has risen 70% over the last two decades. A recent highly publicized court debate failed to deliver a verdict on a case that would have seen marital rape finally criminalized, leaving India among only roughly 30 nations where it is not yet criminalized. No surprise that many men’s rights and religious rights groups opposed the criminalization of this.

Despite long-standing laws that criminalize rape and other sexual crimes, and the The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act being passed in 2013, sexual violence is a major problem faced by women and girls in India. Although the global #MeToo movement has spread across India and forced a reckoning of these crimes in on regard, there are still numerous women, especially poor and marginalized voices, who are not being championed or paid attention to.

In addition to this, and probably the most compelling piece of data around sexual crimes, is that a vast majority of victims personally know their attacker. This means family members or partners, predominantly.

So how does one go about seeking justice in an environment where, on paper there are laws that prohibit and in some cases criminalize sexual violence (clearly not all), but the culture prevents enforcement of the law and allows patriarchal power and violence to continue? How can a victim have a voice and find the support they need when they fear the backlash that comes from people not believing them? I may not have the answer, but as someone who believes in championing women and girls’ rights, the most powerful thing I can do is raise my voice and share my story.

When I was in 6th or 7th grade, I had no idea what sexual harassment or abuse was. I had never even heard the terms. One of my older male cousins who was visiting my family and I, came and sat next to me where I was lying on my bed. He slowly started touching me, from head then my face then my breast and with other hand tried to touch my vagina. I was scared and pushed him off, not knowing what he was doing but knowing immediately that I did not feel comfortable. I ran out of the room but did not tell my parents, as I was too afraid that they would not believe me, because in their eyes he was a good person. That night I was too scared to fall asleep, fearing he would come back into my room, and it resulted in me having panic attacks for the next 5 days. This was the first sexual abuse incident I remember happening to me.

A few years later, I went to live at my aunt and uncle’s house (my mother’s sister) so I could attend a local school and study. Over time, my uncle who would initially treat me like his own daughter, started hitting on me. He started touching me, then tried to kiss me. I started feeling strange and uncomfortable. Every night was a living hell for me. I used to cover myself with a blanket like a sleeping bag and force myself to stay awake to be alert if he came into my room. I could not sleep as I feared for my safety. As a result, I would fall asleep every day at school.

One night, I was so tired and ended up falling asleep. My uncle came into my room and started to touch me, and tried to climb on top of me. I pushed him so hard but he was too strong. My aunt heard me struggling, came to my room and saw what was happening. I thought for sure she would get angry at him and be outraged for me. Instead, she just asked him, “why are you doing this?”. And that was it.

I was so surprised she didn’t get angry or kick him out of the house. I am her sister’s daughter! I was a child and this was sexual abuse, for goodness sake! But of course, all this I know in hindsight, and it makes it even more hideous that the adults in the room didn’t take seriously the crime of sexual abuse of a young girl.

Again, I couldn’t tell my parents, but convinced them to let me come back home, and they did. The main reason I went to my aunt’s place was to attend a very good school, but because of the assault, that opportunity slipped away.

After few years, the same uncle tried to touch me again in another incident, but this time I was older and knew what was happening. Instead of staying silent, I did something unthinkable for a girl like me: I slapped in on his face. From that day on, he has never come near me again. It took a lot of courage for me to stand up for myself, knowing that even my own family did not have my back when they knew of previous incidents.

What’s more shocking is that this uncle has a daughter! I shudder to think of what that young girl will learn about as she gets older, and even how she would be treated if she ever experiences sexual assault. What kind of message is this uncle sending out into the world by treating me like this? Does he not understand that his actions are going to have an impact on his own daughter, and the way she thinks about him?

I have already seen this happen to the younger generation of girls in my extended family. Two years ago, one of my young cousins was assaulted by another family member. She went and complained to her mother. I was shocked by her mother’s reply, where she told my cousin that she must stay silent to protect the family’s reputation. Her advice was to ignore and forget the incident. It made me sick to learn about the incident, and even more so to learn the response from her own mother.

This is a bit part of why many sexual assault victims never come forward about their experiences, in fear of never being believed. This in turn perpetuates a cycle where communities, authorities, and even the justice system constantly places the victim in a state of suspicion, instead of the attacker. It is the victim who constantly has to prove they are telling the truth, instead of the perpetrator having to explain their actions and receiving appropriate punishment. We end up becoming the ones “punished”, when we are shunned by our parents, families, friends, colleagues and community. This is not justice. There has to be a reckoning where even one person has the guts to break the cycle, and stand up for victims.

As for my own family, when my sisters also experienced sexual assault we finally decided to come forward to tell our mother what happened to us. Thankfully, she believed us and instructed us never to sleep at a relative’s house again, knowing it was not safe. Her belief in our stories made a huge difference, and we were able to seek her protection against further attacks. But not every young woman in my country is as lucky.

In India, when women speak out she risks being shunned or ostracized from her family and community. She is painted with a scarlet letter and blamed for being victimized. They even go as far as hating her because of the way she is smearing the “good” name of a man who may have a good reputation in the eyes of others. This is rape culture. While men can enjoy the freedom to live how they want, women live in fear of being attacked, and then shunned for speaking out. A law that criminalizes rape and sexual assault can only be effective if it is enforced, and if the culture doesn’t immediately look at a victim with suspicion.

I know I am not the only one who has a story to share. But I now know the power I now have in sharing my story publicly, in the hope that other women and girls will be brave enough to tell theirs also. My hope is that more parents across India will recognize the importance of supporting their daughters if they choose to speak out. As Malala Yousafzai once famously said, “We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”

It is time for the silence to end. I hope my story will bring some comfort to those who have experienced what I have. You are not alone, and you matter. There are people who you can seek out to protect and support you. There are many organizations in India who will help victims of sexual crimes. Here is a list you can begin with.

Writer Pooja Kannan

Pooja Kannan describes herself as an open minded person, from an orthodox family in India, who is determined and courageous to fight for her passion and what she wants in life. She loves to be a voice for humanity and fight for the righteousness of humans, irrespective of gender. Pooja also loves adventures, and helping the needy. Traveling has taught her many things and given her a beautiful experience of life and serving humanity. Today she is raising her voice for freedom, for women’s speech and living out her dreams.