Geeta*, a community health worker from Muzaffarnagar, a district in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was leaving the village where she worked when she was raped by four men. Early last year, the mother of three killed herself after a video of the assault was circulated on WhatsApp.
Just a week later, Muzaffarnagar was back in the news when a video of a young woman's 2013 gang rape went viral. The victim, whose husband later abandoned her, tried to commit suicide several times. Less than six months later, a 17-year-old girl was abducted, gang raped, and blackmailed with a video that was subsequently shared on social media.
These are the known instances in a phenomenon where the majority of the cases go unreported. In all these incidents, the victims of these horrific crimes had been intimidated, blackmailed, and shamed with videos made on mobile phones—footage that was later circulated within their village and the wider community.
"We are working on such cases all the time now," says Rehana Adib, a women's rights activist in Muzaffarnagar who has worked on all three cases. It can even happen, she adds, in cases where a woman is simply conversing with a man on her phone, which is frowned upon in more conservative and rural parts of India. "Everyone has a mobile phone, and if a woman is even talking to a man, he can tape it and use it to blackmail her. It's because these women bear the burden of the entire family's honor. If that is seemingly violated, there's no going back, she cannot be forgiven, and the family's honor can only be restored once they are rid of her."
Adib had reached out to support the woman who had been raped in 2013, but says that her team has not been able to trace her whereabouts for the past few months. "Her phone is off and her family won't tell us anything. We don't know if she's been banished by them or if she's even alive."
In August, the Times of India found hundreds—possibly thousands—of rape videos were being sold across Uttar Pradesh. The clips were sold under the counter for as little as 50 to 100 rupees ($0.75-$1.50), readily available to download on to phones or pen drives at local kiosks and paan-cigarette shops. "Porn is passe," one shopkeeper told the Times. "These real life crimes are the rage." A subsequent Al Jazeera investigation found that local police were oblivious to the underground trade happening under their noses, with one bewildered senior officer asking, "Rape video, what is this?"
In the public outrage that followed, police announced a statewide crackdown on the trade. Uttar Pradesh police spokesperson Rahul Srivastava told Broadly: "We had to pose as decoy customers and seized hundreds of CDs, pen drives, and laptops and even arrested some of the traders who were selling porn and rape videos together."
However, the sellers were soon out on bail, and Srivastava admits that it's possible that they are back to selling videos of sexual assault. "It cannot be certainly said if they got back to selling videos of sexual assault, but they very possibly did," he hedges. "These are social pathologies, hardly prevented by raids."
Frustrated with the ineffectual police response, people have instead turned to social media for justice. Hyderabad-based women's rights activist Sunitha Krishnan started the campaign #ShametheRapist in 2015 after being tipped off about two videos in circulation on Whatsapp and social media. She blurred out the faces and bodies of the victims and posted the footage of their attackers on YouTube.
The campaign eventually led to several arrests, but Krishnan's methods are controversial. Critics argue that this form of vigilante justice took place without the consent of the victims in the clips. Krishnan—who is herself a gang rape survivor— defended the move in several interviews, telling the Indian Express, "Offenders make videos and take photos to shame victims and use these to threaten them into silence. I used the same strategy against the offenders while concealing the identity of the victim. I am hoping people will be sensitive enough to give information if they can identify the rapists."
Nothing in the world that can ensure that the video will be destroyed.
"Once a video is made and circulated, there is absolutely no closure for the victims. Nothing in the world that can ensure that the video will be destroyed. Which is why, in most of these cases, the women do not come forward as complainants," Krishnan tells Broadly. She says she has received over a hundred videos since the start of her campaign. In the four years since the gang rape of a Delhi student Jyoti Singh triggered protests across the country and propelled the issue of violence against women to top of the national agenda, the number of reported rapes in the country has gone up. More women have come forward to report the crime in defiance of the stigma that victims face and the conservative notions of honor and shame that pervade Indian society. As Krishnan attests, however, very few women come forward if the crime has been recorded on video.
Soon after she launched her campaign, Krishnan's anti-trafficking NGO Prajwala filed a petition with the Supreme Court, which ordered the country's top law enforcement agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, to investigate the crimes. It also sought the government's response on blocking these videos. Some of the recommendations made by Krishnan to the court include creating a national sex offenders registry and forming a centralized government agency to investigate these cases. The most important recommendation of all, she says, is to create a mechanism that allows those who receive these videos to make an anonymous complaint. Most people, she argues, are unwilling to report such content openly or are scared of being treated as the perpetrators.
Advocates say that the technology companies that own the search engines and social networks where these videos proliferate also have a part to play in clamping down on the underground trade. "It is not just the responsibility of the government, but also of service providers to identify human rights violations," argues Aparna Bhat, the Delhi-based lawyer who represents Prajwala. The Indian authorities seem to agree: In December, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the local offices of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook, calling on them to do more to curb the spread of abuse videos. The tech giants have yet to file a reply.
In the meantime, police and legal experts trying to find practical solutions to this phenomenon are battling with content can be shared online in an unlimited number of ways. Any strategy they adopt has to evolve and stay ahead of changing technologies, and that's just the start. "This is the beginning of the process," Bhat says. "We know that things will unravel, but when some of these ideas are implemented, we will know what's working and what's not working."
* Name has been changed.