In February 2012, Jordan was raped by four men after she came out of a club on Park Street, a broad thoroughfare in Kolkata well-known for its restaurants and nightclubs. Kolkata’s politicians and police officials drew immense public ire when they blamed the victim for the violence she had suffered; West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee notoriously called Jordan a liar, and said she was trying to besmirch the state's reputation.
But “the Park Street rape victim”, as the media called her, was a fighter. She insisted on filing charges against her rapists, though the local police were so reluctant to do so that the process took hours. Jordan faced the legal battle ahead of her with determination, no easy thing. Rape victims and survivors face long and often lonely court battles; sentencing can take three years or more. In 2014, the Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam, expressed his unhappiness at declining conviction rates in cases of rape and other crimes against women – the conviction rate for rape had dropped from 26.6 (percent) in 2010 to 24.2 in 2012, he said, citing National Crime Records Bureau figures.
Revealing her identity
A year and four months after the attack on her, Jordan decided to dispense with the anonymity that is every rape victim’s right. “Enough is enough,” she had told the BBC. “I am tired of being made to feel ashamed. I am tired of feeling scared because I have been raped. My name is Suzette Jordan and I don’t want to be known any longer as the victim of Calcutta’s Park Street rape.”
Jordan had worked as a counsellor for a helpline on domestic abuse and violence; she was the mother of two children. Her refusal to accept the shame that is often visited on survivors of sexual assault was inspirational to women who would never know or get to meet her. And she was a giant source of inspiration, with her honesty, her feistiness, her ability to hold on to her fun-loving self, despite all that she went through.
But over the last three years, Jordan’s struggles and small victories were also a stark illustration of India’s colossal failure to create pragmatic and functional support systems for victims of rape, or other kinds of gender violence.
Almost all the help that Jordan received after February 2012 was either offered by individuals or by local organisations such as Kolkata-based Maitree, an umbrella network for women’s rights activists, or Bangalore-based TFC. When she lost her job, it was Santasree, a former victim of domestic violence herself, who stepped in. When the news spread that Jordan was seriously ill, it was again left to her family and individuals who had worked with women’s causes to try to help.
This was considered unremarkable – even those journalists who covered Jordan’s case would not have found it in any way unusual that a survivor would have no recourse to public services or funds for her legal fees, medical treatment or for PTSD counselling. Violence against women in India is often meticulously covered and discussed, and yet the wellbeing of victims and survivors is seen as their individual burden, not as the responsibility of the community or the state. Discussions on rape, in particular, tend to dwell on the exact nature of the violence suffered by victims, on the fear of sexual assault, the trauma of the survivors and the punishment that should be meted out to rapists.
Problems go unaddressed
But media discussions seldom address problems with the legal and judicial process, on the quality of care and support networks that victims across social classes can access, on the medical, legal and personal costs that often accompany reporting or otherwise dealing with rape and sexual violence. And yet, these problems are what are most urgent to those who survive rape. As with other victims, Suzette Jordan’s life for the last three years might have been far less stressful and fraught if she hadn’t had to be brave on her own, with just a handful of individuals to help her along.
What do victims and survivors need? The answer isn’t simple: it includes but is not limited to 24-hour helplines, well-planned crisis centres, access for women across rural and urban India to long-term medical and psychiatric help, much more sensitivity in police stations and hospitals, and a far more streamlined and responsive legal and judicial process.
When the present government decided to roll back one-stop crisis centres, they were quite rightly criticised – instead of 660 Nirbhaya Centres, to be rolled out across 640 districts and 20 major metros, there will now be only 36; the budget for the programme has been cut from Rs 244 crore to Rs 18 crore.
This is not to say that one-stop crisis centres are the answer. Lawyer and women’s rights expert Flavia Agnes wrote in July that quick-fix solutions are not the way forward. Speaking of a previous scheme to appoint Protection Officers, she writes: “A convergent model between the PO, shelter homes, hospitals, legal aid and the courts has not been put in place.” There is a risk attached to dumping this problem on one-stop crisis centres, she warns: “If the counselling centre is projected as a specialised centre, all hospitals will shun their responsibility.”
But at present, Kolkata has no functional 24-hour rape, gender or domestic violence hotlines; Mumbai has an efficient hotline but the links between police stations, NGOs and legal services are still not as strong as they could be; Delhi has a hotline that functions well when it’s operational, but callers often complain that no one is there to answer calls.
Only two of Delhi’s hospitals have experimental rape crisis desks/centres. The situation for victims outside the metros is far worse; the availability of actual, useful aid on the ground is entirely dependent on the presence of local NGOs and the willingness of individual police and district officials to step in and assist victims.
Across India, people responded to Suzette Jordan’s case with compassion, and that was some balm for the stigma that others had visited on “the Park Street victim”. Many gave Suzette their respect and admiration, and did their best to help.
But I wish she and every other victim of gender violence out there, including LGBT and children victims, also had access to doctors and the best lawyers by right. Along with the respect and caring, I wish that there had been solid networks of emotional and career support, and practical financial assistance, instead of the endless, unproductive media debates on rape. She faced what came her way with bravery and courage, but I wish that all the Suzette Jordans out there had access to concrete, long-term resources – not just our admiration.
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