She was a brilliant child with a sparkle in her eyes and full of life. And very chatty- which earned her the nickname, ‘baatooni’ (talklative). But then something happened. She appeared numb to her surroundings. She would not maintain eye contact with anyone. Her chubby cheeks became hollow.
“In the first meeting, she turned me away. But in the next, she opened up. She said one of her neighbors, a man in his late 20s, was raping her for the last two years. Medical examination showed that she was six months pregnant. She was a 13-year-old,” said Sudha Tiwari, a rape counsellor with NGO Shakti Shalini in Delhi, for over 15 years.
Tiwari’s job demands developing a relationship with victims of sexual assault who have lost faith in their trusted ones as in a majority of rape cases, the rapist is known to the survivor. She also tells the survivors why they should not start hating their bodies, which they think would be rejected by men who love them.
Depending on their relationship with the accused, frequency of sexual assault and the person’s mental status, rape does different things to different women, she said.
“A lot of girls think that they have become dirty. They tend to cover themselves with shawls for months. Some develop random mood swings and don’t feel wrong in repeatedly narrating their stories with graphic details. Others turn violent and want nothing less than death of the rapist,” Tiwari said.
While some rape victims move on in three months to four years, others refuse to come out of the ‘guilt’, which they should never have felt.
At times, the impact of the crime is not confined to the victim. Tiwari recalled a case in a slum in the Nizamuddin area, where moments of horror left a family broken for life.
The father used to rape his minor daughter. He got arrested after an FIR was lodged by his wife, who used to work as a domestic help in a nearby colony.
“Their house became a landmark. Once the mother was out for work, everyone would ask that girl, details of what her father did to her. Beat constables would tease this woman (victim’s mother) by saying tera marad andar hai aaj kal… abhi toh maze hain tere (your husband is in jail these days. You must be having a good time),” Tiwari said.
For around a month, the woman visited Tiwari at her Jangpura office near the slum. Then she stopped coming.
“She killed herself,” said Tiwari, “Now that girl and her siblings live in a shelter home.”
Then there are cases in which the basic equation of a family unit is altered- girl pregnant with child of her father.
“Where on earth is she supposed to go when her father does this to her? And the worst part in such cases is that the mother turns the victim’s biggest enemy. She wants her husband back. The entire family hierarchy breaks down,” she said.
It is hard to profile rapists based on age, demography or social strata, said Tiwari, highlighting the difference between upper middle class and those surviving on the margins.
“Walls are thick in posh areas. It is easy to hide a crime. You can send the victim abroad and strike a deal with police to shut the case. On the other hand, news of crime spreads like a wild fire in a slum,” she said.
The toughest part of being a rape counsellor is to convince the victim to initiate legal proceedings against the accused. It is not an easy task as in most of the cases there is immense pressure on the victim to reconcile.
“Victims, particularly adults, are told that if they speak about the crime, they will face social boycott. The result is that they don’t want to come into the picture and yet want the culprits to be punished. Some of them just take a U- turn and say there was no rape,” said Dorthy Kamal, rape counsellor with crisis intervention cell, a service for rape victims run by Delhi Commission for Women.
“We tell them that if they want action against the person, there is no way but to get involved in legal proceedings,” she said.
The only silver lining, said Kamal, is that more and more victims are speaking against atrocities.
“While there is a rise in crime against women, registration of cases has also increased manifold. Media has surely helped here,” she said.