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The silence that speaks

People often cast aspersions on the survivors of sexual violence for their silence. But experts emphasise that taking time to speak about the trauma is perfectly normal, finds

Indulekha Aravind 

When a lawyer in her early 20s blogged about having been sexually harassed during an internship by a retired Supreme Court judge on her college webpage, she could not have foreseen the furore it would create. But in a country, awakened by the heinous gangrape and death of a young student in Delhi in December 2012, the post went viral and prompted the country's apex court to take suo motu action, even though no formal complaint had been filed. At the other end of the spectrum were those who sought to discredit the allegation, with one common question being what had taken so long for her to speak out. (The alleged harassment is supposed to have taken place in December 2012, while the blog was written nearly a year later) Commenting about the matter to The Hindustan Times, retired Delhi High Court judge RS Sodhi remarked, "... To come up after months with scandalous allegations is only wild card publicity for the reason that the man is so big that even a fly can hit him."

In subsequent interviews, the lawyer herself has said about the delay: "It took me time to come to terms with the fact that I had been assaulted. When I finally did, all that I wanted to do was to erase the memory from my conscious (sic)." She says she never mentioned the incident to anybody the day it happened, and that all she had wanted to do immediately afterwards was "to walk out very calmly." It took her five months to even tell her family and when she did, she says they too were not keen on a formal complaint.

While her delay in speaking about the incident, in the public domain or to her family, may be misconstrued to cast aspersions about the veracity of the claim, psychiatrists, counsellors and activists working with victims of sexual assault say silence is a common response to what is essentially trauma.

Harish Shetty
Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist at LH Hiranandani Hospital in Mumbai and visiting faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says there can be various reasons for choosing to remain silent about sexual assault or harassment. "It is very common to repress such incidents and the reasons are varied. Victims might be afraid of not being believed, especially if the perpetrator is a family member or somebody they know. And families are reluctant to disturb the status quo."

The fear of societal shame and of being blamed can also be factors as well as the tendency for victims to feel responsible for what has happened. One of his recent patients, he says, was a 60-year-old woman who had been suffering from chronic abdominal pain for years. During the course of her sessions, she finally revealed that she had been sexually abused when she was 14 by her father's closest friend, and she had never told anybody about it. "Nobody had asked her about child sexual abuse before. I talked her through it and got her to understand that she was not responsible for what had happened. It took her around four months to recover, but once she spoke about the abuse her stomach pain disappeared," he says.

Sexual violence in any form is shrouded in silence, says Padma Bhate-Deosthali, coordinator of Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, which has been working with public health institutions to develop a model to respond to sexual violence. Unlike in other cases of violence, such as if you are slapped by a stranger, for instance, which you would immediately react to, "there is so much shame about our bodies that children do not even have a language to say what happened to them, survivors don't speak," she says. And if harassment takes place at the workplace, the question of challenging the hierarchy comes into play. Victim-blaming is a common response, which acts a deterrent for complaints. "You don't know if you might be blamed for what happened. For example, if an intern or student complains about harassment, people ask questions along the lines of 'there were so many interns, why did it happen only to you, he is a great teacher", she says. But the reluctance or delay to file a complaint, for instance, may also be because they need to consult their families and take a decision, she cautions. And at times, victims come forward only because they have developed a health complaint because of the abuse.

While one cannot generalise about the reasons for victims choosing not to talk about what happened, shock, denial and depression are often the outcome of the abuse or assault, says H Chandrashekar, head, department of psychiatry, Bangalore Medical College. If the perpetrator is somebody close to them, they might not even understand what is happening, initially, he says.

Depending on the degree of abuse, the effects of suppressing the incident could be manifest in different ways. Shetty says one of his patients was a college girl who had been raped by her boyfriend when she went to visit him at home. She did not tell anyone and when she got engaged later, to another man, she found that she could not bring herself to even hold his hand. "There was a lot of anger, sadness and depression. The emotions were creating havoc inside her, and the incident had converted her to the belief that all men were bad," he says.

After the outrage over the gangrape on December 16, though, both Shetty and Chandrashekhar say more victims of sexual assault have been coming forward to talk about it. "But there is still a long, long way to go," warns Shetty. In case a friend or family member does confide in you about about having been assaulted or abused, you should immediately direct them to a counsellor. "Suggest that he or she seek professional help at the earliest. A holiday or a pizza is not the answer."

And there is no reason to be suspicious if somebody chooses to speak out about abuse years later, he says. "Government files are declassified only after 25-30 years. So why should there be a problem here."

  • Immediately direct her to a counsellor / suggest she seeks professional help at the earliest
  • Don't catastrophise the incident
  • Don't call her a victim, survivor is a better term
  • Suggestions like taking a holiday is not a solution

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First Published: Sat, May 17 2014. 00:25 IST