Kickstarting a whole new dialogue on rape

In a country where a woman is raped every 20 minutes, Smita Sharma has started a Kickstarter page to raise funds to educate Indians about sexual violence and to buy bicycles to empower women to go to school. Since 2014, she has been chronicling the brave lives of rape survivors through her camera. Her photos were recently showcased in an exhibition organized at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi

Smita Sharma is a woman with a mission. This young lady has been traveling to remote villages of India to photograph victims of rape and bring their stories to the world.

A rape victim caught on Smitha's frame

One of the rape survivors photographed by Smita Sharma

So far, she has photographed 27 women belonging to different states of India and the photos were showcased at an exhibition held at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi recently.

While the exhibition based on her project got rave reviews, and huge response from international media as well, it made Smita’s resolve to launch her awareness campaign even stronger.

She says: “Whenever I go to meet any victim, the last thing I ask is how it happened. I meet them as a friend. They are so horribly ostracized and shunned that sometimes I am the only one they have probably talked to in ages and shared a hug with. In my interactions with the rape survivors, I have realized there is a trend.

Smitha Sharma

Smita Sharma

“Among the 27 women I photographed, 25 have been raped by people they knew. The rape was meticulously planned because the rapist kept track of the victim’s movements. In some cases, the perpetrators were arrested. In some others, they were not. In many cases, they were arrested but they are out on bail now.

“But in all cases, the onus of blame and shame has been on the woman. I met the family of a deceased 80-year-old lady, who had been raped by a 17-year-old boy and people laughed at her because they felt she was responsible for her rape.”

How the project started

Smita dabbled in advertising, journalism and photography in India. She then went to New York to take a course in photography at the International Center of Photography and graduated in photojournalism and documentary photography in 2013.

“I interned with Stephanie Sinclair from National Geographic and she encouraged me to work on a project on child marriages in India. I became a part of her non-profit www.tooyoungtowed.org.”

Smita’s connect to the current project is to a great extent personal. At the age of 18, she was molested by a college professor and she was pressured to remain silent after being given a lecture on how to respect elders. She only opened up 10 years later to her teenage cousin, when she (cousin) was molested by a classmate.

“She filed a molestation complaint but instead of dealing with the boy, the teachers and principal of the school said she was doing all this to seek attention and she was blamed for spoiling the school’s image. After dealing with this for four years, she finally lost hope and took her own life in January 2015. This happened when she failed to submit an assignment and was harassed and insulted for filing the molestation complaint. This was the biggest blow to me,” said Smita.

By photographing women victims and telling the world their stories, Smita wanted to sensitize people about sexual abuse and violence and also make them aware of their rights.

How she does it

When she started working on the project, she realized that rape statistics might be much higher in India than the National Crime Bureau’s statistic that every 20 minutes a woman is raped in India.

“Women are controlled through shame and fear and that is why most of the rapes are not reported and the perpetrator roams around scot-free in the same community,” she said.

Identifying a survivor, establishing contact and going over to photograph her is an arduous and often dangerous task. Sometimes people from the victim’s community, to which the rapist may also belong, can get hostile.

“I never go alone. I am always accompanied by some members of an NGO, teachers from the schools in that area, a friend or health workers. Since the perpetrators are sometime still living freely in the same community, there is a serious threat of physical harm. That’s why I often travel incognito in that case with a driver, who could protect me if needed.”

Smita recounted an experience that had shaken her considerably but could not scare her to give up her project.

“I was in the home of a victim in a remote village in UP. The village had no electricity but everyone had a mobile phone. Somehow the panchayat (the group of leaders that control and settle disputes in the village) came to know that I was there and they called a group of men to intimidate me. The situation could have turned really bad but somehow we kept calm and tried reasoning with them. Then I left before things got really ugly,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, Smita has put together photographs and stories that are heart wrenching.

She photographed Kalpana (17) with her five- year-old son Neel at their home in Kolkata.

Kalpana was raped by her landlord’s son in 2008. She remained silent out of shame and fear. When she became pregnant from the rape, her mother threw her out of the house.

She was later pressured to marry her rapist by a local political party. But she refused to withdraw the case or marry him.

Originally from a suburban West Bengal town, she now lives in Kolkata with her son and works as a hair stylist at a salon.

Beena (15) was going to be married in eight days when a distant relative volunteered to take her to meet her mother. Instead, she was abducted and taken to a neighboring district. There, she was raped repeatedly for weeks.

Smita photographed Shama (20) while she was lying in the burn ward of a hospital in Varanasi. She was attacked by three men who tried to rape her when she had gone out to fetch water. She put up a brave fight and the men, unable to rape her, douzed her in kerosene and set her on fire. Shama died a week later.

Shanti (15) was called out of school by a family friend and raped. She was threatened with murder if she spoke about being violated. At the time she was photographed by Smita, she was seven months pregnant.

Smita realized that just photographing these women and talking about their stories was not the end of the project for her. She wanted to do much more.

“By documenting rape survivors’ testimonials, I want to identify the common denominators that lead to rape. I also hope to discover regional nuances that contribute to this mindset. By doing so, we can open discussions, build empathy, change mindsets, and work towards solutions that are most appropriate for a given region,” said Smita.

She was looking for crowd funding through her Kickstarter campaign and within 48 hours, she reached her goal of raising $18,000.

“I was overwhelmed by the support I got. Now I have reached the goal of $30,000,” Smita said.

“I have realized people are not aware of their rights. The first thing women do after being raped is take a bath and clean themselves not being aware that they are washing away all the evidence,” said Smita.

Bicycles for freedom

Apart from collaborating with three organizations in India that are working on building awareness around women’s issues, Smita is also collaborating with Varanasi-based PVCHR who have started the Bicycles for Freedom project.

“Girls have to often walk long distances to go to school and this is the time they are attacked, kidnapped and raped. Thus fear of such attacks and the shame that comes while dealing with such attacks force girls to drop out of schools.

“The idea is to give them bicycles that would empower them and motivate them to attend school. I will donate bicycles with the money I raise through my Kickstarter campaign,she said.   

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com

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