As I read the newspapers about the outrage in Parliament over the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old in a Delhi bus, a statement by a Parliamentarian catches my eye. The lady, who means well, I am sure, says “even if the victim survives, she would be a ‘zinda laash’.” A living corpse. The words sent a chill down my spine with the assumption that a victim of rape could never hope to emerge from the trauma, that the victim would be ‘scarred’ for life, that she could never hope to move on, leave the tag of being a victim and move forward towards being a survivor.
Do we even understand the kind of trauma that a victim of rape goes through? According to Wikipedia, Rape Trauma Syndrome is “a form of psychological trauma experienced by a rape victim that consist of disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal characteristics.” These can last for up to years after a rape and have devastating effects on the psyche of the victim.
Immediately after the rape, the physical injuries apart, the victim is in an acute stage of trauma, and then moves on to what seems to be a resumption of a normal life. Nonetheless, there is often internal turmoil in this outward adjustment stage where the victim struggles to reconcile herself with the need to go on with her regular routine.
Feelings of helplessness, guilt, depression, self blaming, suicidal tendencies, acute depression are all part of the trauma a victim undergoes. This may last from several months to many years after a rape. Finally comes the renormalisation phase where the victim moves forward to being a survivor, where the victim integrates the fact of the sexual assault into her life, and stops making the rape the central focus of her life.
We need to work with them towards helping them become survivors and it doesn’t take much, except a shift in our attitudes. The first step would be stopping the victim blaming. “What were you doing out so late?” “You were wearing jeans.” “She was out with her boyfriend, she was asking for it.” Victim blaming can be as traumatic as the assault itself. The victim has to face character assassination, the implicit reasoning that she is immoral in some way, or has in some way ‘asked for it’. To quote a victim from an IBNlive story, “Many insensitive questions are raised on the girl’s character. Once the girl is raped, the society rapes her. Once they are raped by a man, then by rest of the society.” The fact remains that infants, geriatrics, the mentally retarded also get raped, surely they didn’t provoke the rape by indecent clothing, by being out late, by being of immoral character?
Counselling and medical support are a given. We need more rape crisis centres, with trained, empathetic professionals for victims from all walks of life to access free of charge. If a victim has a trained professional to help her deal with her feelings post the trauma, healing could be quicker. Sensitising programmes for the police, the judiciary and hospital staff who are the first point of contact for the victim as well as the media are the need of the hour. A protocol for dealing with victims brought in could include sensitised questioning, handling of the case.
The family of a victim can help by being supportive and positive, allowing the victim the time to heal, and not hurrying her along to get back to a regular routine or pretending the crime didn’t happen at all. Some victims would switch off and prefer to be isolated in order to heal themselves, while others might get back to their regular routine as quickly as possible and be as normal as possible. Everyone heals differently. Some victims might have nightmares, flashbacks.
Some might seem completely unaffected on the outside. Let the victim take the lead in how she wants to discuss the trauma, if at all, if you are close to her. Don’t second guess her experience of the assault. “You should have done this, you should have called for help, you should have kept a knife in your purse…” What has happened has happened and the ‘you could have prevented it if’ talk will only add to her internal turmoil. Don’t tell the victim not to think of it, not to talk about it. They need to replay it, to examine it again, to go over it till they purge themselves of the pain associated with the assault.
The most shameful thing is the social ostracism that a rape victim has to deal with. The ostracism instead, needs to be reserved for the perpetrators. This can only happen by a sustained long term campaign that changes mindsets from the school curriculum stage itself, where gender equality is taught and practiced, at school, at home. Utopian, perhaps, but definitely something one can work towards.
— Kiran Manral is an author, blogger and media consultant. She is also part of the core team behind Violence Against Women Awareness Month (October 2011 and 2012).