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A rape survivor in India gets justice after 17 years

Dec 05, 2013

The rape survivor had to literally fight not just the system but the society with its cultural stigmas and taboos, writes Rakhi Ghosh..

Bhubaneswar: She sees herself as a lone crusader, not a survivor. Today, whenever she hears or sees a woman or girl being harassed, she rushes to help. She has even filed FIRs against those who harass women.

“As long as I am alive, I don’t want others to go through what I have gone through. Only rape survivors know what rape really is,” she says.

The incident that changed her life forever occurred 17 years ago. It was July 2, 1996. She had just taken up a job as a social worker, fighting for the rights of destitute women. On that particular day, she happened to be returning with her older brother and his friend to her village in Delanga sub division in Khurda district after attending a seminar in Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s state capital. They took a bus to cover the distance of 32 kilometres between Khurda and Delanga and got down at Delanga square. Unfortunately that day they missed the connecting mini bus to their village so they decided to walk it back. “I was in hurry. We had missed the bus and I had to attend an interview for a government job the next morning. It was only 6 pm and I was very familiar with the area, so I had no reason to be worried over my safety. We were just a few kilometres away from our village when two persons came up to us and attacked my brother and his friend.”

Fearing that something was wrong, the young woman fled from the spot. She later noticed two other persons following her. They caught up with her and took her to a secluded place where the other two also joined them. From their conversation she gathered that they had severely attacked her brother and she knew that something terrible will now be perpetrated against her. “I tried to resist them but they were young and powerful. All four of them raped me. I was screaming, shouting, but no one came to my rescue. Whenever I recall that incident even now, I feel that sense of outrage and start shouting to myself, ‘Why me? Why me?’” recalls the 38-yar-old Khurdha rape survivor.

Her real trauma began after this. She had to literally fight not just the system but the society with its cultural stigmas and taboos. In those days, it was not easy for a woman, who came from a small village to file an FIR. Her family supported her but everyone else, including the police, lawyers, and the medical community, proved most unhelpful. Her father was clear – he told her that they have to fight for justice. “When we have done nothing wrong, why should we be blamed?” he had asked. She filed the case and all the four accused were arrested and sent to jail.

The case came up in the trial court. Obviously bribes had been paid and there was pressure on her to withdraw her case. “During those days we were under great pressure. The accused happened to be the sons or relatives of some very powerful people and they may have got away with such crimes before. Local politicians turned up to force me to withdraw my charges. Even as late as 2011 they came in search of a mutual settlement. But what was there to settle? How could I forget that dark day in my life?” she asks.

She fought the case until her marriage in 1999. It became more difficult after that. “Being an Odia ‘bahu’, it was tough for me to fight as a rape survivor. My husband was supportive and had agreed to marry me despite knowing everything. But we live in an unsympathetic society. Sometimes I feel I should not have married. That way I could have fought them. I was burning with the memory of that attack on me every day and every night of my life,” recalls the survivor, now a mother of two children.

The case remained in cold storage for several years until a young human rights lawyer of Odisha High Court, Prabir Das, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) for the speedy trial of this long standing gang-rape case. Says Das, “After the Delhi gang-rape incident, the Supreme Court had sent letters to all state High Courts for the speedy trial of pending gang-rape cases in fast-track courts. When I heard about this from a local journalist, I decided to file a PIL with the prayer that this woman should not be denied justice because rape violates a woman’s human rights and her security in society.”

In February 2013, the Odisha High Court sent a letter to the Khurdha Chief Judicial Magistrate Court asking it to take up the case speedily. After 17 years of waiting, the survivor finally got a chance to demand justice. Remarks Sabitri Mishra, public prosecutor of the Khurdha Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, “The entire court – even the defence lawyer – looked stunned when she narrated her side of the story. I even noticed tears in the eyes of some lawyers as she spoke. The judge ruled in her favour and the rapists were sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Finally, after 17 years, she got some justice.”

It was not just the survivor, Mishra herself, even as a senior lawyer, came under pressure. The accused happened to be very well connected and a lot of well-known and powerful persons in the area came out in their support. Observes Mishra, “I must say the woman is very brave and her husband, very supportive. This is really a victory for everybody fighting violence against women.”

Looking back on the days just after the incident, the rape survivor pointed out how women like her are often accused of inviting the crime upon themselves. “People would ask me why was I outside at that time in the first place. It is as if they were accusing me of the crime. During the early days, I just shut myself away in a dark room. Relatives, friends, acquaintances, they all stopped coming to our home. I was generally liked by people who had known me, but once this happened, everyone turned their backs on me. As a social worker I was fighting for the rights of women, but during that time I had lost the confidence to raise my own voice.”

The fact that the incident did not receive the attention of the national media indicates how violence perpetrated against women in rural India tends to get very little coverage in the press, although they too go through the same traumas and pain. This survivor had to make a new life for herself in order to cope. She and her husband moved out of their village to a neighbourhood that did not know of the incident. She sometimes gets anxiety pangs over whether the rapists would seek revenge and attack her family, “My daughter is now 12, I want to keep her safe at all costs.”

A teacher in a government school, today she helps educate her students about life and security. As she puts it in conclusion, “Life has taught me a lot. Whenever I see anyone harassing a woman I immediately rush to her aid. I have even had FIRs filed against such criminals. Whenever I hear or read about a gang-rape case, I just pray that such incidents come to an end some day.”

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