Oped

Horrors unconfronted

  • Lack of protection from sexual assault is connected to lawlessness and internalisation of criminalisation
- Prawash Gautam

Mar 11, 2018-

He touched me again,” was how it began. The SMS was long and detailed the circumstances and context surrounding the assault. The text came just as I reached my house after meeting her.

When Aarati (name changed) had called me after her office hours, the dim light of dusk had already cast a pall over the Kathmandu sky.

“Can you meet me?” The sense of urgency of her voice belied her attempt to appear calm.

But it was already late, I told her. We could meet the next day.

There was a moment of awkward silence before she put the phone down.

Twenty minutes later and my phone rang again. It was her. She had to talk, she said. She couldn’t wait until the next morning. I agreed to go to her.

She was sitting on a bench in Patan Durbar Square and she had a desolate look on her face. She told me about her undergraduate class that morning. And about her meeting with the teacher after that. She mentioned the teacher’s name through clenched teeth. But she didn’t dwell on him.

I asked her: What was it that she had called me so late to talk about?

But she acted as though she had not heard, and continued talking. Eventually, she steered the conversation to the recent police cover ups of rape in Durbarmarg and in Itahari. 

“In buses, in offices, in classrooms, in streets, females face sexual harassment everywhere,” she said.

“Did he do anything today?”

She continued. “But the victims don’t get justice. Ironically, they’re blamed. Or, they’re criticised for not being strong enough.” 

I replied. “But shouldn’t you speak up when things like that happen?”

We continued in this vein until we parted. She sharing nothing of what she had called me for.

And half an hour later, my phone blinked with her SMS.

“[He] touched me again,” it began. He had called her to his office to discuss the entrance exam for a faculty position. He shared with her the strategies she should adopt if she wanted to keep her part-time teaching position in the college.

“I’m telling you all these as your father or as your brother,” he said. “Or, as your husband.”

“You believe me, don’t you?” he said, as he grasped her arms and pulled her towards him.  

In one of their very first meetings, after he was assigned to be her thesis supervisor, he had forced his lips onto hers. He’d gestured for her to sit on the sofa, and had left his chair behind his desk to sit right beside her. And as she awkwardly talked about her thesis, he’d slipped his arms behind her back.

She’d told him in earnest that she respected him as a teacher, and that his behaviour made her uncomfortable.

He withdrew immediately said he didn’t mean any harm. He told her he had seen Aarati’s passion for teaching and her delight on being assigned two lectures. He said he would help her through the entrance exams for a permanent teaching position, and she trusted him.

But eventually, his abuse slowly began to surface again. 

“Timilai Sir ko maya lagdaina?” he would tell her many times over the phone.

“Ma talai uthayera lanu paryo ki kya ho?” he told her once when they happened upon each other outside the college.

No way out

She told her sister about the assaulted. “This is common,” her sister said. “They’re all like that and protect each other. The best option is to leave the job.”

In her emotionally turbulent childhood, with a father who blamed his wife for not giving him a son, she had found consolation in her books. And now, books and her academics promised a prospect of career growth. So how could she walk out of college and leave her job as a teacher as her sister had suggested? 

She had told her colleague at her regular office about the incident the very first time it happened. “You should speak up,” she’d said. “You’ll find such 

people wherever you go. You should be strong.”  But she feared that if she spoke up, he would turn against her and find other ways of assaulting her. Speaking up, to her, was not as simple as her colleague seemed to suggest.

Sometimes, she would think her sister was right and would make up her mind to leave the college. But then she would change her mind and start to plan how she could demand justice by complaining to the campus authority. And then she would feel that the best course of action would be to lodge a police complaint. Eventually, she’d change her mind again, because she dreaded the idea of going to the police.

Protecting the voiceless

This relationship between sexual abuse and negative emotions of anxiety, shame, guilt, isolation, hopelessness and fear has been established by an extensive body of literature. A comprehensive training module to empower caregivers to address victims of sexual abuse “Victim Impact: How Victims Are Affected by Sexual Assault And How Law Enforcement Can Respond” prepared by the End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) and funded by the US Department of Justice points out that fear and shame are among the common experiences of victims of sexual assault. The victims’ fear of seeking justice is aggravated by the lack of sincerity on the part of the law enforcement bodies, it suggests.

This is precisely what has happened in Aarati’s case. The suggestions Aarati got from her sister and colleague singularly point to one direction: A clear mistrust towards the state institutions when it comes to seeking justice for heinous crimes as sexual assault.

In an ideal case, reporting abuse to the police should be a natural response that guarantees victims a safe, protected environment, and  compassion and acknowledgement of the crimes inflicted on them. But Aarati was tormented by many questions while considering filing a police complaint. Would they even file my complaint? Will I get justice? Won’t it backfire on me, since I don’t have powerful connections, unlike my assaulter? 

Her fear prevented her from even raising her voice. Seeking retribution against her perpetrator, has a direct connection with the law enforcers’ brazen disregard to victims of sexual abuse, loudly illustrated by the recent police cover up of the gang rape of a 22-year-old woman in Durbarmarg, and of a woman in Itahari.

This lack of protection and double victimisation of those suffering sexual assault—first by the abuser and then the police by not forwarding the process of justice—is connected to the potent symbolism of lawlessness and internalisation of criminalisation that is prevalent in our society. This symbolism is embodied, for example, in KP Oli’s statement that “underground money” should be legalised. Or, it is embodied in top parties shamelessly awarding election tickets to the likes of Deepak Manange and Ganesh Lama.

It is this explicit censure of lawlessness from the very individuals and institutions that should be protecting and ensuring justice to victims that gives individuals with intentions to harm others the audacity to encroach upon another’s physical, emotional space.

Yes, individual, family and community responsibility always exists. Yet the most responsible and accountable should be the state. The Nepali state has the responsibility to protect victims like Aarati. Victims should have no second thoughts when it comes to approaching the state apparatus to seek justice that is rightfully theirs.

Gautam writes on contemporary social and cultural issues

Published: 11-03-2018 07:52

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