Featured Comment: Community Organizations as Gap Fillers in Meeting the Needs of Sexual Violence Survivors in India
Guest comment by Aanchal Kapur, Founder and Leader, Kriti Team, a community-based development organization in India focused on empowering women:
“I have heard the silence loud and clear,
I have felt the pain and anger that your eyes speak of
I have seen you going along, amidst the shadows of truth
on the path that is your life, knowing that its yours alone
but I know that I will be there...
to break the silence with you.”
These poignant words sum up the primary role of a community-based organization and women’s group for women victims and survivors of sexual violence in India, especially in view of the gaps left by the courts.
In the majority of cases, when a woman faces sexual violence in her marital relationship, she does not even acknowledge it as “violence,” as it is an expected and routine behavior that she is obligated to suffer. In some parts of the country, a woman may face such violence at the hands of brothers or cousins of her husband and, in rare cases, at the hands of her father-in-law. In such cases, the woman may stay silent for fear that her “character” may come under doubt. There are also many cases of single, unmarried and widowed women who suffer sexual violence at the hands of men in their homes or community spaces. Films like the documentary Lightening Testimonies tell us of many such cases where women have been sexually violated to fulfill a patriarchal need.
Community-based organizations play an important role in such cases of sexual violence especially if they are able to reach women in their “normal circumstances” through women's meetings that discuss the various forms of violence that women suffer. Often, such encounters help women realize, recognize, and then acknowledge the “sexual violence” they may be suffering each day of their lives.
There are also other cases of street and public violence, especially rape, where community-based organizations play an important role. In these types of cases as well, the first task is to encourage the survivor (and her family) to take action despite the socially inculcated first reaction, which is often to hush up incidences of sexual violence.
The nature of responses may differ for women who face sexual violence as domestic violence on a day-to-day basis and those who face a more gruesome or public form of sexual violence. In my experience as a women’s advocate and leader of the community-based organization Kriti, often many organizations do not even take marital or family based rape as a case for action unless it is publicized or attention is focused on it in some way that makes the incident appear “bigger” than it would otherwise be considered.
In a country where there is an instance of such violence literally every minute of the day, it is not possible for the legal system to respond favorably not only because of the procedural and human resource constraints within the legal system itself, but also due to the existent patriarchal attitudes and behavior that serve to limit the protections provided by the legal system.
Local organizations can fulfill multiple roles as assistance providers for survivors of sexual violence. These range from emotive- or counseling-based assistance, such as safe sheltering and provision of food and other basic needs for the woman (and her child if necessary), or legal and survival/livelihood-based assistance.
The Kriti team, a community-based organization focused on empowering women, provides such assistance by, for example, linking women with lawyers or law-based women’s organizations or shelters; providing counseling and support in making the decision to make a complaint and taking women to the police station, etc. We have also provided our workspace as a temporary shelter for women seeking to escape violence and have helped a few women with raising some resources to take legal action. We have also offered women work and livelihood options so that they can live and survive on their own and not have to go back to their family space after suffering such violence and sometimes being thrown out of their home after such an incident. Such opportunities often serve as coping and healing mechanisms for women survivors of sexual violence and are an important function of community-based organizations while the parallel process of the law takes its course. With other peer-level organizations, we have also been part of mobilized protests against acts of sexual violence against a woman in the community or a woman activist. Many local organizations also work hand in hand with the local panchayat (women led or otherwise) to bring relief to survivors of sexual violence so that the woman is not left alone in her battle for justice and survival with dignity.
Our partner organization, Astitva, works on domestic violence issues and is another example of a community organization filling gaps left by the legal system in assisting women survivors of sexual violence. Astitva performs many functions, including informing the domestic violence survivor about the procedure and law, helping her register a police case and assisting in getting the medical report done to record the physical form of violence. Often the police are reluctant to register a case because then they will have to take further action and if they do not manage to arrest the perpetrator of violence, it will show badly in their records. Indeed, in some instances Astitva has had to lean on the police and use influential contacts to make the police take action. In other cases, Astitva has provided support to the survivors against police and medical staff who may be too nosy, gossipy, condescending and/or judgmental, all of which have the effect of making the survivor hesitate to turn to the police and the law for assistance. Astitva also helps to combat other barriers a domestic violence survivor may face in seeking justice. For example, the organization can help a woman to find a lawyer who will work within her budget or pro bono. This is especially useful in cases where the woman may have a low or restricted income and might not want to go ahead with the legal process because of the prohibitive costs.
Often court cases take an extremely long time and lawyers may encourage women to make settlements out of court—organizations like Kriti and Astitva advise and support women through this process. Community organizations also play a role in the follow-up to a case. In most cases the perpetrators get bail within a few months of being arrested. Organizations like Kriti and Astitva may then step in and try to ensure that the court procedures are followed. If a women’s family disowns her, the organizations help her find work or shelter.
Very importantly, community-based organizations provide counseling to the survivor and, if need be, to the family. This is especially necessary, as the legal system cannot fulfill all the needs of a survivor of sexual violence in India. Community organizations like Kriti and Astitva are there for the woman survivor as a support system and back up so that she does not find herself alone.