A potent mix of orthodoxy and patriarchy ensures that survivors of sexual violence rarely recover from their trauma. Those closest to survivors and best positioned to support them — family, friends, and wider community — often exacerbate their pain. In this two-part series for #GenderAnd, the authors conducted interviews with the male family members of survivors of sexual assault — fathers, husbands or sons. Most of them expressed a spectrum of emotions, including helplessness, anger, doubt and disgust, which, in some cases, they did take out on the survivor. Husbands confessed to blaming their wives if she knew the perpetrator prior to the assault. In many cases that the authors investigated, men admitted that the memory of the violation was a trauma that they were struggling to overcome.
Manju’s (name changed) case illustrates how intimate relationships between spouses can change dramatically, even become violent, after a sexual assault. Ujjain-resident Manju was raped by her neighbour, whose wife she had been friends with for many years. The man, recently convicted, had convinced his wife to get hold of photos of Manju, which were used in court to claim that the relationship with Manju was consensual. The claim, at the time of the trial, drove a deep wedge in the loving relationship between Manju and her husband Kishore. “Our relationship was most beautiful until the rape,” says an inconsolable Manju.
Kishore says he can’t forgive his wife for allowing the attacker to make such claims. He has shown signs of violent behaviour since then. Manju has been hospitalised twice, once for a broken leg and another time for broken teeth. “I have tried to commit suicide twice. There cannot be a pain worse than this,” says the rape survivor.
Seeing his wife break down and cry during the interview, Kishore regretted his behaviour but explained, “I am sometimes unable to cope with the strong mixture of anger, frustration, guilt and suspicion in my mind”. Kishore’s response reveals the complex emotions churned by a violent crime, and traditions and attitudes towards women.
Psychologist Manzoor Ahmed, a counsellor with Jan Sahas, a Dewas-based organisation that works with survivors of sexual assault, points out how men are socialised into playing the role of the protector of the family. All of this is fundamentally challenged by an incident of sexual violence. Men, who are expected to be “strong”, have almost no way to express their emotions after such an incident. Initially, the counselling programme at Jan Sahas focused only on the survivor. Realising the need for the family to also deal with the incident, the programme’s strategy evolved to include intimate partners and close family members. “We go over the incident step-by-step with both, the survivor and the members of her family, until they understand and accept, together, that the rape was not any of their fault and that it was out of their control,” Ahmed says.
Besides intimate partners, parents suffer as well. Dr. Shaibya Saldanah, a gynaecologist and sexuality educator in Bangalore, who counsels’ survivors and their families, says, “Parents experience a great deal of guilt when their child has been sexually abused. They feel they have not been a good parent and have let down the child.” The lack of counselling services for families dealing with the violent crime towards their child in turn affects the survivor’s progress and recovery.
“The parents get stuck in the memory of the incident and the trauma that they think they have caused,” explains Saldanah. In her experience, their unaddressed emotions often result in persistent anxiety.
Not all parents behave alike. Vijay Kumar’s self-belief and courage helped him face the opposition he encountered after his 15-year-old daughter, Roopa, was raped. On a winter morning in January 2016, Kumar and his wife, who live in Tonk Khurd block in the Dewas district, had gone to a neighbouring village to attend a wedding. Roopa had stayed back and was watching television at home when two adolescent boys from the neighbourhood broke into the house and took turns raping her. They filmed the entire ordeal on a mobile phone. The boys, who belong to the same dominant caste as Kumar, threatened to leak the video if Roopa spoke about this to her parents. They left assuming they would go scot-free, not expecting that Vijay Kumar would fight tooth and nail to get justice for his daughter.
Although the father wishes he never left his daughter home alone that day, “I can do nothing to change what has happened,” he says. “I knew right from the beginning that there was no point in hiding.” Kumar and his family came under tremendous pressure from their extended family and the powerful caste network to stop pursuing the case. Negotiations were initiated on behalf of the rapists by the head of the gram panchayat. “When they realised that I was not willing to budge, the boys would walk outside my house to provoke me to attack them, hoping they could press counter charges against me,” says Kumar. The father’s grit paid off. Six months later, both the boys were sentenced to ten years in prison.
The conviction displayed by Vijay Kumar is uncommon among men closely related to survivors. Unlike many, Vijay did not prevent his daughter from completing her studies. “I know I must be one of the few from my caste to take such a decision, of making the incident public and fighting the case. The easy way would have been to cover up the rapes. But it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do, and I wanted to do the right thing”.
Mental health practitioners say that counseling of rape survivors can yield best results if services are made available to the survivor and family right after the incident. However, the country’s public health care system has no provision for psycho-medical help to assist survivors and families in overcoming emotional trauma. Human Rights Watch in an October 2017 report stated that rape survivors in India receive almost no attention to their health needs, including counseling.
The government’s one-stop crisis centres for survivors of rape and abuse are a step in this direction but there is still work to be done. “Earlier, the counselors believed that their role was to generate information for others, like the police or lawyers, but after the training they are more cognizant of confidentiality, of being non-judgmental and focusing on the survivor,” says Ahmed
*Names of people have been changed to protect identity.
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