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Facing up to rape in India
01:55 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note:

New Delhi CNN  — 

“Me Too, Me Too, Me Too,” they said, in Mumbai, Delhi, and Chennai.

They were part of the global outpouring of voices, after actress Alyssa Milano called on the public to speak up shortly after sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein were made public. A spokeswoman for Weinstein has repeatedly denied allegations “of non-consensual sex.”

In India, where memories of a horrific gang-rape in 2012 continue to linger, use of the #MeToo hashtag has been widespread, taking over people’s Facebook walls, spawning numerous columns and restarting a public conversation about the ongoing sexual abuse of women.

For many Indian women, it was an important moment of solidarity and a means of showing the extent and continued pervasiveness of sexual abuse in India.

“The#MeToo (posts) made it evident how widespread it was, it was different from looking at a statistic or data,” said Namita Bhandare, a writer and a columnist with the Hindustan Times. “A lot of my (male) friends said ‘oh we didn’t know, we had no idea it was widespread, and these are fairly enlightened men.’”

Others took it as a moment to speak on the systemic cultural reasons that prevent women in India from confronting abuse.

“For the Indian context, I do believe that it opened things up. There’s a lot more women coming out,” Bani Rachel Bali, the founder of Krantikali, an organization that works on gender issues, tells CNN.

India has long struggled with issues surrounding sexual assault.

“I haven’t seen a campaign that started in one corner of the world and replicated all across, so to see something like this really blow up and more than this being an online campaign … I felt the presence of a sisterhood,” she added.

Ongoing dialogue

In the aftermath of the 2012 gang rape, in which a group of men attacked a young woman named Jyoti Singh Pandey who later died from her injuries, the Indian government strengthened punishments for cases of sexual harassment and assault, increasing the length of prison sentences and adding the death penalty.

In addition, the government set up fast-track courts and provided a $480 million budget, known as the Nirbhaya Fund, for creating new women’s safety initiatives.

Still, activists point to recent crime statistics that show a rise in rape complaints, as proof that sexual abuse is not something that can be simply legislated away.

Officially, India recorded more than 34,651 criminal complaints of rape in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That marks a 40% rise compared with 2012.

“Rape is defined as ‘izzat lootna’ in Hindustani, or robbing one’s dignity,” wrote actress Richa Chadha on Facebook. “In whatever form one is assaulted, what do you think happens when prejudice like this exists in society – does it get easier or more difficult to report a gender crime?”

More recently, in late September, the issue of mistreatment of women once against came to the fore when a Delhi court overturned the rape conviction of filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui, saying that “a feeble no” could still signal willingness on the part of an alleged victim.

Unsubstantiated accusations

The outpouring has not been without controversy, however.

A few days after the hashtag spread, Raya Sarkar, a graduate student at University of California, Davis, created a crowdsourced list accusing numerous academics at universities in India and in the US, of sexual violence, based, she said, on what victims had told her.

In response, many prominent feminists issued a statement saying that, the names on the list, which was published online by Sarkar, were put out there “with no context or explanation.”

“One or two names of men who have been already found guilty of sexual harassment by due process, are placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations,” they wrote. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability.”

Still, Bhandare said the larger #MeToo movement and “every little conversation” is a step forward.

“There’s no letting up, one doesn’t know where the #MeToo movement where it will go,” Bhandare said. “It’s a continuing conversation.”