Updated: Sep 20, 2020
I’ve been passionate about empowering women and girls for as long as I can remember. I attribute much of this to growing up in a patriarchal culture, rife with inequality and inherent ideas about women and girls being less valuable than men and boys. I also feel it’s common amongst survivors; as if there’s some unspoken sisterhood that connects us all, because we all know that what was done to us is wrong and we feel compelled to protect, warn and support each other.
I was always outspoken, awkward, strong-willed, and independent - qualities that aren’t really considered ladylike or desirable qualities in ‘good’ girls. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I was targeted; as if being something that society wants you not to be is an invitation to invite someone to break you down, control you, abuse you. I am still not sure. But one thing I know for sure is that every survivor I have ever met is unbelievably strong. Every single one is a revolutionary. I suppose what I am wondering is if we were revolutionaries before we were abused.
When I was 12 years old, I was groomed by an older boy within the local Indian community (while I was living in the US). He was a boy who came from a “good” family (read: rich and high caste), who wore designer but not necessarily trendy clothes, took pricey private lessons in tennis, and was the spoilt son of privileged well-to-do parents. He was a boy that was not used to hearing ‘no’ for an answer. He was an egotistical sociopath in luxe sheep’s clothing.
I was lucky to be raised by encouraging parents who didn’t see my gender as a limitation, but like so many girls being raised in collective cultures, there were certain things that we just didn’t discuss because no one talks about them. In turn, the community and social norms provided certain expectations – the unspoken things that girls shouldn’t do or say, rules about how girls should behave, who girls should and shouldn’t interact with, and so on. It’s insane when you start to dissect it all - there are even limitations placed on girls who are menstruating or those who have miscarried – baseless discriminatory stigmas that have no merit but are enforced because ‘that’s what everyone does’. When those in the minority dare to try and challenge the status quo – conformity reigns supreme. Despite being empowered by my parents at home, I was confused, to say the least, as society seemed to have mixed messages about what a girl should do and how she should behave.
Initially, when the grooming began, I thought that someone was finally siding with me - someone finally understood me! After all, it’s not easy being an outspoken and independent girl in a culture that expects otherwise. That’s the thing about grooming though; someone intentionally tries to gain your trust and isolate you with the intention of eventually abusing you. After some time, he started being rough with me and joking about it, but soon it turned to full on abuse, and eventually rape, with a side of threats and stalking. I was only 13 when the rape happened. I don’t even think I fully understood the magnitude of what happened to me. Sometimes I still don’t. A few years ago, I went to a family party and one of my cousin’s daughters was there - she was 12 years old at the time. I saw her, realised her age was the age that I was when I was raped and I essentially went into shock. I’ve obviously always known that I was that age, but I suppose in my head it played out differently because I was living it; it had never occurred to me that I was that young. Seeing it and accepting it for what it was so many years later was a complete shock to the system.
Like so many others, I never spoke out when it happened. How do you even begin to talk about something you aren’t supposed to talk about? When you’ve all of a sudden done something you aren’t supposed to do (whether I had a say in the matter or not)? I couldn’t tell anyone, and I didn’t for a very long time. I lived with that shame for a long time, and every now and then, it still resurfaces and rears its ugly head.
Things look different now. Despite the anxiety and depression I faced as a result of what happened, I eventually found my way to therapy and got the support I needed. I found a healthy relationship (after several subsequent unhealthy ones) with a supportive partner who I can talk to and who understands me, and together we have built our own little family. I also found quite a lot of solace in writing and speaking out about gender-based violence via a platform I created called she will survive, which provides a repository of support resources in every single country in the world, and through Shakti.ism, a social enterprise I founded that works to empower marginalised women in India and Bangladesh. The first project (she will survive) was created with the intention to give every girl a voice; I truly believe it’s important that no one who is a victim of sexual abuse or violence should have to deal with their trauma alone. Too many cultures in the world limit a woman’s voice, and while it’s always important for all genders to speak out, it’s especially important for victims of sexual abuse or violence to feel empowered to find their voices. This is a critical step in the road to recovery. The guilt and shame are not ours, and we need to find a way to release it. Those are not our burdens to carry. The second project (Shakti.ism) was a more proactive approach, because at its root, gender-based violence stems from inequality; the idea that women are not as valuable as men leads to discrimination and encourages violence against women. It has to stop.
My hope is that by spreading awareness, empowering disadvantaged women and collating and sharing support resources, we can work towards eradicating harmful behaviours and biases against women, and eliminate social stigmas and cultural norms that contribute to gender inequality and encourage violence or abuse against women or girls. It’s time for people to start having awkward conversations (parents, talk to your kids!), so that maybe less people will grow up to be abusers and more will grow up believing in treating others with respect, and we can finally obtain true gender equality for everyone.