Gathering stories to empower female survivors of sexual violence

Gathering stories to empower female survivors of sexual violence: how campaigning journalism works with citizen-generated data

The Ladies Finger

Nisha Susan, Founder, The Ladies Finger

Online magazine ‘The Ladies Finger’ asked its female readership to contribute their experiences of reporting sexual violence to the authorities. Together with human rights organisation Amnesty International, The Ladies Finger ran a ‘Ready to Report’ campaign using this information to highlight patterns of injustice within the existing system.

We founded The Ladies Finger two years ago, in the summer of 2013, as an Indian women’s zine and an online space to discuss gender issues. We wanted to create a media outlet that did not present sexual violence in a sensationalist or scare-mongering form. When a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped in Delhi in December 2012, a fearful media frenzy followed in its aftermath. Through a platform like The Ladies Finger, we wanted to cut through this noise and bring facts and calm analysis to the discussion.

We have a strong interest in looking beyond the focus of Indian mainstream media, which tends to present women either as victims or achievers. We do celebrate achievements and report on violence but our main interest is in the everyday textures of women’s lives: work, health, relationships, politics, all forms of misogyny, pop and high culture, creativity and activism.

Amnesty International: Ready to Report

In May 2015, two campaigners from Amnesty International told us about a terrific campaign in the pipeline: Ready to Report. The campaign objective was to make it easier for victims of sexual violence to file a police complaint. In India, it is notoriously difficult to file a ‘First Information Report’ (FIR), which obliges the police to investigate the claim. There are also lots of rumours about victims being made to feel ashamed while trying to submit a report. However, as the Amnesty campaigners observed, much of what happens in the police station remains undocumented.

In 2015, as editor of ‘Originals’ on Yahoo! News (a long form section), I published an in-depth piece on the experiences of a young journalist in Mumbai, who had been subjected to a particularly violent sexual assault. It was published a year after the incident took place, and the rapists had been convicted. As a result of this piece, we had a great deal of first-hand information on the behind-the-scenes treatment of sexual assault survivors by media outlets - local and national. It appeared that while the media recognised sexual assault accounts as a topic provoking widespread outrage in India (also positively affecting the Television Rating Point), they did not consider ethical boundaries when reporting such stories. For example, we heard accounts of journalists climbing up six floors of a hospital fire-escape to reach a recovering rape victim, or asking a victim to write a personal account merely a few hours after an assault.

At The Ladies Finger, we believe that women’s lives must not be limited by fear of sexual violence. When we do report stories relating to sexual violence, we ensure that our reportage places these incidents within the larger context of the survivors’ lives, and as far as possible, looks towards their futures. We believe this has helped to create a platform where writers and readers can talk about sexual violence without scaremongering. It is why, when we reported the story of a woman who was attacked underwater by her diving instructor, we included also her experience of returning to the ocean and rediscovering its beauty and solace.

A callout for citizen stories

On social media and through word of mouth we asked: “Do you have a story of reporting assault or harassment that you would like to share with us? Do you want to report, but have not yet been able? Or perhaps you do not want to report at all? We’re all ears.” We offered to speak on the phone or in person with those who did not want to write their own accounts. Over the next couple of months we spoke to several survivors and reached out to those on social media who had mentioned experiencing difficulties with the police.

From the few stories we published initially, a complex picture emerged. The variables that affect whether an Indian woman’s claim is taken seriously by the police range considerably, from class, caste, the site of the assault, to the time of day. The more familiar the complainant was with the assaulter/rapist/stalker the less likely she was to successfully register a case. Our findings backed up results from the more rigorous studies undertaken by activists: in the legal system, you are likely to fare better if you have been violently assaulted by a working-class stranger in a public place.

Even if you are the ‘right’ kind of victim with the ‘right’ kind of attacker, the police still do not necessarily want to file a complaint on your behalf. Instead they might offer (as in one case study) to give your attacker ‘treatment’ – torture in the lock-up.

In India, the mainstream political response to the events of 2012 has been to announce more laws, more surveillance and a Rs. 2,000 core fund. All of this seems to involve a lot of technology.  Instead political will, such as it is, might have been better directed at the systemic inequalities and unfair treatment mentioned above.

The case of Khabar Lahariya

One story for our Ready to Report campaign came from an entirely unexpected source. An editor from Khabar Lahariya, an award-winning weekly local language newspaper with a readership of over 80,000 people, wrote and asked if the editorial team could contribute a piece. Khabar Lahariya (KL) is sold across six hundred villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states, an area with little media coverage, and is published by a female collective of rural journalists.

The KL team described how one man had harassed various members of their team, by phone, for over six months. He called at all times of the day and night, whispering violent and sexual abuse, until, as one team member wrote, “He was in my dreams.” The team called a helpline for women, and visited the police station daily. Despite extreme resistance from the police, they filed multiple FIRs. One day the stalker called when they were in the office of the Deputy Inspector General (DIG). The DIG attempted to talk to him, but the stalker only responded with a challenge: “Catch me if you can”. Months later the team was still being stalked.

Ordinarily, if a sexual violence complainant from their region had approached the KL journalists, they would have written and published her story. Yet, in their own case, they were wary of facing contempt from their male peers by writing about the ongoing abuse they faced. Several of the team were Dalit or first generation learners, and had already battled to be taken seriously in the ‘hard news’ world. It was bad enough that the police, with whom they still had to deal with in their professional capacity, took pleasure in asking them to repeat their stalkers’ abuse aloud so as to shame them.

“I had a surreal sense of being in one of my own stories, watching myself pleading with the cops in the police station – this dingy, repellent, male space – being scoffed at, made to perform, repeatedly, each time someone new wanted in on the joke,” wrote Kavita, an editor and founding member of KL. Kavita’s detailed, blow-by-blow account went live on 14 September 2015. Within hours the story had gone viral. Readers took to Twitter to publicly demand an explanation from the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, and other government officials. At Finger and KL we were both surprised and skeptical when on Twitter we got a response that promised immediate action.

At the police station the next day, the KL reporters had to file their complaint as if all the paperwork of the previous months had disappeared into thin air. One day later, as if by magic, their stalker was arrested.

“We were asked to leave everything immediately and be present at the Banda station,” read the KL account. “Shortly afterwards, the police presented the accused. He was asked if he recognised us. We were in a state of physical and emotional shock. Neither had we wanted to see this man, nor did we want him to see us. But the police didn’t think to ask us about this, so caught up were they in their big moment of success.”

They didn’t add that the senior police officers left them in the station and rushed off to organise a self-congratulatory press conference. While in the police station, the accused threatened them again.

Being left alone with their attackers while in the police station, and vulnerable to active threats, is another detail that has come up repeatedly in the accounts of complainants. Returning to the case of the Mumbai journalist, she described being taken into a room full of men - including all those who raped her - without the presence of any female officers. She was instructed to identify her assailants by touching the men on the arm and to announce aloud, “Isne mera balatkaar kiya” (He sexually assaulted me).

KL was back in business the day after their stalker’s arrest. They organised their own press conference and accepted the Chief Minister’s invitation to tour the premises of the (clearly inadequate) women’s helpline, writing a sardonic account of their visit. They strategically accepted the nationwide celebration of how effective the police had been, tolerating also comments from well-meaning people who wondered why ‘they had been suffering in silence for so long’.

These stories from sexual violence survivors expose all the faults that need to be addressed in our present support and justice systems, even as our politicians, the public and even the judiciary announce their desire for more surveillance, capital punishment and chemical castration. At The Ladies Finger, we continue to have hopes for the future, while listening to our networks and watching social media for more stories that highlight complex issues relating to sexual assault.