The Debate

India’s #MeToo Movement Underlines Why Survivors Must Be Believed

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The Debate

India’s #MeToo Movement Underlines Why Survivors Must Be Believed

There are more reasons to believe survivors than there are to dismiss claims of sexual harassment and assaults

India’s #MeToo Movement Underlines Why Survivors Must Be Believed
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

In September 2018, a Bollywood actress, Tanushree Dutta, publicly recalled her encounter with Nana Patekar, her co-star on the set of the movie “Horn OK Please” in 2008, where she alleged that Patekar had sexually harassed her. With that, India’s own #MeToo movement finally took off. Since then, the movement has been gaining momentum and it has expanded to India’s comedy and journalism industries in the last few days. Indian women are coming forward, sharing encounters of harassment by men in their respective lives.

Unsurprisingly, most of the accused claim the allegations leveled against them are false. In Dutta’s case, she has been called out as an “attention-seeker.”

Through a Facebook post, Vinta Nanda, a filmmaker, broke her silence of 19 years. In her post, she accused Alok Nath, a prominent Indian actor known for his “Sanskari” (meaning well-cultured) image, of raping her in the 1990s. Alok Nath neither denied or accepted the charges against him but he went on to take credit for Nanda’s success in the film industry. Among a number of women who have accused Abhijeet Bhattacharya, a Bollywood singer, of sexual harassment is a flight attendant who recently recalled her encounter with him at a pub in Kolkata 20 years ago. He denied the allegations and accused the survivors of seeking attention. He also stated that “only fat and ugly women are blaming” men of sexual harassment.

India’s #MeToo movement has sparked a much-needed discussion on why survivors of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct at the workplace don’t report it and, even if they finally do so, why it takes them years to report it to the relevant authorities. Following the wake of the allegations against U.S. film mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017, Riya Sarkar, a California-based law student created a list of sexual predators in the academic community in India.

Although the list was heatedly debated by Indian feminists on its effectiveness in battling the issue of sexual harassment and assaults, it opened up a gateway for survivors to speak up, which has finally led to this outbreak of reporting on cases of sexual harassment and misconduct at the workplace. #MeToo is cathartic for survivors of rape, sexual assault, and harassment as it finally gives them the opportunity they have been vehemently seeking: to acknowledge the injustice they have been internally battling with and, most importantly, the opportunity to be heard and pursue justice.

The outpouring of women coming out and naming their harassers is a positive sign that India is slowly moving toward creating a safe environment for survivors. But the “war” has only just begun. Reporting cases of sexual violence is the first step, but the rest of the pathway to justice is mired with concerns for survivors.

In 2014, the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), an Indian government body, released data showing that 53.2 percent of the 2,743 complaints of rape filed between April 2013 to July 2014 were found to be false. This data has been quoted extensively by men’s rights groups to drive their point home on how Indian women have been misusing rape laws to extort money or to execute personal revenge against men.

The inconclusiveness of this data lies on the fact that the classification of “false cases” included all cases that were dropped before reaching the courts. The collation of this data failed to take into account an extensive reasoning on why these cases were dropped. A 2015 study done by Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ), a Delhi-based non-profit organization that provides legal and psycho-social support to child victims of sexual violence during criminal proceedings, notes that a key factor that impacts the withdrawal of such cases is the pressure received by the victims and their families to do so. Very often, victims receive pressure through physical threats and harassment and this occurs at all stages of the criminal proceedings. Sometimes, the offender’s relatives might even file false police-complaints against the victim’s family members with an intention to intimidate them. In order to emotionally manipulate the victims, the perpetrators also have resorted to threatening to circulate explicit images and video recordings of the victims during the abuse. All these factors have led to witnesses and victims turning hostile and withdrawing their cases. The study also shows that there have been a number of cases where the police and the accused have tried to compromise registered cases by pressuring the victim and their family to accept an extrajudicial financial settlement which led to the victims withdrawing their complaints before their cases reach the courts.

In 2013, Rukmini Srinivasan, a data scientist, followed 460 cases of rape registered that went to full trial at the Delhi district courts as opposed to looking at the number of cases dropped as adopted by the DCW. What she found does not corroborate the current narrative that most of the cases are registered with the intention of extorting money from the accused or that it was a vile method pursued by women as an act of personal revenge upon men. In her investigation, Srinivasan found that 189 out of the 460 cases dealt with the sexual relationship between consenting adults. 174 out of these 189 cases involve parents, usually of the girl, filing false complaints of rape and abduction as the young couples have eloped, defying their parent’s instructions to end their relationship. In conservative Indian society, the parents would rather bear the stigma of rape and sexual assault as opposed to the stigma of a young woman consenting to have a sexual relationship out of wedlock. This shows a disturbing social construct that a women’s dishonor is dictated by her sexual independence. It also provides a crucial evidence that the claims made by men’s rights activists that women misuse rape laws to extort money or for revenge is unsubstantiated as most such false cases are filed by parents to criminalize young love.

Despite the claims of false cases reported by women for revenge being refuted through these data, there is still a proportion of the Indian population that believes that women have a certain agenda behind the reporting of rape, sexual assault, and harassment. Reporting still comes at a cost that is detrimental to not only the victim’s reputation but also their future economic opportunities. In Dutta’s case, the first time she outed the perpetrator for his misconduct, it inadvertently cost her a career in the Bollywood industry, quite possibly prompting her to move overseas for years.

Another important misconception that has been revealed to be inaccurate by the statistics is the frequency of stranger rape in India. According to the data collected and studied by Rukmini and published at The Hindu, out of the 460 cases they studied, there are 111 cases of reported rape committed by a neighbor or an acquaintance, which far outweighs the number of cases of stranger rape, which amount to just 12. Among those cases of rape by an acquaintance or a neighbor, where adult women filed complaints against men they know, the study found that courts tend to acquit the men when there are frequent changes in the victim’s testimony or if they are not able to find medical evidence to corroborate the victim’s statements.

These numbers, however, do corroborate one narrative: Women tend to not report due to a lack of trust in the justice system, especially when the accused is close to the victim. Under-reporting remains a looming issue and the subject of debate in the fight against sexual violence and harassment in India. A recent report compiled by Livemint, based on a unit-level data of the National Family Health Surveys (NHFS) conducted in 2015-16, estimated that a whopping 99.1 percent of cases of sexual violence in India go unreported. The report suggests that lack of trust in the justice system, which mainly rests on the police and low conviction rates are two of the factors behind low reporting of such crimes.

Filing official complaints of sexual assaults and harassment is an uphill battle with a very small chance of victory. Victims of rape, sexual assault, and harassment are aware of the consequences they will have to face once they report. In orthodox Indian societies, plagued with a warped idea of women’s sexual agency, reporting is a gargantuan, and a self-inflicting task. It is no surprise that women, who chose to name their perpetrators in public are under intense scrutiny by the public. It is inevitable that some will (and have) quickly blamed survivors for taking years to come out with their stories of abuse and that the only reason they needed to not believe the survivors is the fact that survivors take their time to report. Refusing to acknowledge sexual harassment as acts of violation by the perpetrator has barred these women from coming forward. The #MeToo movement has galvanized enough public support that encourages women to speak up thus slowly breaking the culture of silence. It has broken the shackles of self-blame that victims have had to live with for years and focus the attention on harassers who have, time and again, used their power to bolster the narrative that it was an open invitation by the victims and not a violation of the victim’s rights.

The very fact that the #MeToo Movement is turning out to be one of the most impactful anti-sexual harassment movement shows that India is slowly working towards creating an environment where survivors are assured of justice for the harassment and assaults that they are subjected to. Although #MeToo has not yet featured many male victims of sexual abuse, it is fair to imagine an expansive scale of such abuses, trying not to desensitize its magnitude just because there is no record. The country very recently decriminalized queer sexual-relationships, therefore until now anything pertaining to LGBT+ individuals didn’t reach the concerned authorities for complaint, very likely due to the lack of a mechanism to seek redressal. Sexual assault is a paradigm of oppression that requires much more than a compressed piece of literature. That being said, there are various solutions to overcome every hurdle and make sure that such survivors get the justice they deserve. For a lot of survivors, just being heard, listened to and be believed could be empowering and that could be all they ask for.

Based on the aforementioned statistics, there are more reasons to believe survivors than there are to dismiss claims of sexual harassment and assaults. However, to sustain the momentum that the #MeToo movement has gained in the past few weeks, India needs to act upon the grounds gained and create a systemic long-term solution to effectively curb the menace of harassment at the workplace.

Vida Zonunmawii is a New-Delhi based public policy consultant.