‘…raped by her landlord’s son’
‘…raped by a man who used to frequent the mango orchard she was working in’
‘…raped by a man from her village when she went into the forest to defecate’
‘…raped behind a railway station’
‘…raped several times by three men, and was made to walk naked in the Indian summer heat for 400 meters’
It’s not my fault, a portrait series of 33 horrific accounts of rape, by photojournalist Smita Sharma, was displayed at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa last month. The survivors, masked in colourful odhnis and their eyes exposed, stare directly at the viewer. For Sharma, photographing cases of sex abuse, a total of 42, goes beyond the camera. The 36-year-old has a close bond with these survivors, and follows their lives mired by court cases, stigma and scars. “A woman is raped over and over again emotionally by people who ensure she doesn’t forget what happened. These women, who have opened up to me, say they don’t want to be seen as becharis (helpless),” says Sharma, adding how most shots are candid, taken only after the survivor begins to trust her as a friend.
But it gets far more personal when the exhibition writeup also lists her own tale of molestation by a college professor. It also lists the reason behind Sharma’s angst – her cousin, Kamalika Das, who was molested by a classmate. When the school authorities continued to humiliate her for years after the incident, Das jumped to death from the seventh floor of a building in Salt Lake on January 20, 2015, at the age of 17. “I can’t let her death go to waste,” says Sharma, who collected one lakh plus signatures on Change.org petitioning the then HRD minister Smriti Irani to ensure every school in India has access to counselling, and the staff are sensitised about gender and sexual abuse.
Sharma started the Kamalika Foundation through which she donated bicycles to five sexually violated school girls in Varanasi on August 15 2016 under the ‘Bicycle for Freedom’ campaign that she partnered with NGO PVCHR. “Many girls have to travel long distances on foot to attend middle and high schools and their parents have no money to spend on transport. On the way, some get raped, molested and are sometimes kidnapped and sold to brothels and massage palours. By giving them a bicycle, I tell those girls that it’s not their fault. This motivates them to continue their education.”
But it was the 2011 Park Street rape that riled Sharma. As a journalist with a newspaper, she was shocked at colleagues’ comments about Suzette Jordan, who later became her friend. “Some said she deserved to be raped because she was out drinking, that she was loud, that she was looking for quick money… Even if that was true, so what? What about consent? Even a sex worker has the right to say no,” says Sharma, who later quit her job and enrolled in an advanced course in documentary photography and photojournalism at the International Centre of Photography, New York in 2012. Here, Sharma was later selected to participate in the Eddie Adams workshop and also landed an internship with National Geographic photographer Stephanie Sinclair on her project Too Young to Wed about child marriages in 11 countries. She also read extensively the National Crime Records Bureau trends, about the Indian women’s movement of 1970s and 80s, and Bhanwari Devi and Aruna Shanbag cases.
Since her return to India in 2014, she’s been travelling to remote corners of India, mafia hubs and khap panchayats to document rape survivors. Her network of NGOs, activists and laywers point her to fresh cases. Incidentally, most of the women in her portraits are from rural India. “The incidence of rape is thrice as much in rural areas as compared to urban areas. There is more sexual repression and lack of gender-neutral friendships,” she says, recalling one incident where she went disguised as a pregnant woman to escape a mob sent after her by the village headman when she visited a rape victim in the village. “But women in the city, out of fear of being recognised or losing their job and friends, don’t want to be photographed,” she adds.
Having spent hours at government hospitals, she can now easily identify a rape survivor and the family from their drooping shoulders and expressions of extreme fear. She also met rapists in jails and learnt that it’s not ‘lust’, but because they want to teach the woman a lesson by shaming her, that they rely on coercion. “They even justify their actions, like in the Nirbhaya case. ‘Why was she out so late at night?’ one rapist had asked. ‘Some told me, pata nahi dimaag mein kya chal raha tha’.”Last year, Sharma raised almost $30,000 from 30 countries in a Kickstarter campaign to fund her work. She’s also making a film about her journey and testimonials. “The stories are already there. I cannot change government policies but hope to sensitise hospital staff, government doctors, police, judges.”