This article originally appeared on VICE India.
How do you tell a room full of strangers that you were sexually abused? This question has no definite answer. If you’ve seen the Netflix show Unbelievable—on a true story of a young American girl who tells the police she got raped, and then wasn’t believed—you’ll know that there’s no easy answer to it either. In November last year, as VICE director/producer Arpita De and I, along with a small film crew, sat in a room somewhere in Kathmandu, we felt the walls close in as we heard the words roll out in Nepali: “There were three men and a woman. They hit me from behind, and hit my head. I fell on the ground. Then those three men raped me.”
The account came from a 23-year-old Nepali theatre artist, Manisa, who had agreed to tell us her story for VICE documentary, The Forgotten Ones: Human Trafficking in Nepal. But even in a room miles away from our own in India, the story hit hard. Because narratives around violence against women (VAW) know no boundaries.
For people like me, living in a bubble—be it one that comes with urban dwelling, or the luxury to “switch off” when the dreariness of the world gets too much—is pretty easy. That personal bubble, apart from the luxuries, also includes other things, like staunch ideas and beliefs. For me, that has involved ideas of feminism and independence from patriarchal norms. But because I’m a writer who travels and talks to people for a job, those bubbles, and subsequently those beliefs, exist in precariously-placed silos, eager to pop at the slightest tremor. In November 2019, as I sat opposite Manisa—who recounted her story of abuse, and a narrow escape from one of the biggest and most lucrative crimes in the world that is sex trafficking— I felt my bubble burst.
This wasn’t the first, and definitely won’t be the last. But this was the first time my privileged sense of feminism took a huge hit. In a world where VAW is a norm rather than the exception, I found that it’s the voices in the grassroots that matter more to the larger cause for womxn (a term that is inclusive of trans and non-binary identities) and the marginalised. These are the voices that don’t show up on your Instagram or Twitter feeds. But they’re the ones who actually do the real work.
In Nepal, I encountered several such forces. Manisa helped us in showing the human face of the problem, not just of trafficking in South Asia—where India tops the list of destinations for the crime—but also deeply patriarchal problems such as child marriage (which is common in her native village), stigmas against survivors of gendered violence and, worst of all, poverty, which affects everyone, but statistically impacts women more in terms of risks, access to resources and literacy, among others. In such circumstances, standing up to the deeply-entrenched patriarchal society and making it on your own (Manisa is now a thriving theatre artist in Kathmandu) shows exceptional strength, one that you will never find in your internet influencers or PR-driven heroes.
Another hero we met during our investigation was Charimaya Tamang, the founder and acting executive director of Shakti Samuh, a non-profit formed by the survivors of sex trafficking, to fight sex trafficking. Tamang, a survivor herself, revisited her story from the 1990s, when she, along with 128 girls, was rescued from Mumbai’s Kamathipura area, known to be one of the biggest red-light districts in India. And while the tortuous time that she served in Mumbai was bad enough (enough to make her attempt to die by suicide), the rescue wasn’t easy either. Coming back to a society that victim shames and blames women for a crime perpetrated by players out of their control, almost broke her.
“People used to spit on us, abuse, curse us,” she told us. “They would blame us for our misfortune.” But while many would bend and break under such circumstances, Tamang used it as a power to build an organisation that would ensure that no other woman has to face what she faced. “Shakti means power. We added that name to our group and moved forward,” she said.
Towards the end, we went to the border town of Nepalgunj, one of the few routes traffickers use to traffic women to India. There, we found an army of women vigilantes, who have set up manual surveillance to keep an eye out for vulnerable women and children crossing the porous border. The women, despite pressures from home and threats from the traffickers, stand guard and interrogate people all day, take back the girls to their families, and counsel elders. “The job is risky but it also makes me happy,” Reena Singh, a patrolling officer who works with another organisation that supports survivors of trafficking, Maiti Nepal, told me. “So many girls are saved because of us.”
In urban pockets, with our smartphones, relatively unrestricted internet, and access to information, a conversation on VAW is easy. Easier still are the privileges that enable women like me to lead independent lives and discard patriarchal norms, thanks to a comparatively supportive family. When I say no to getting married early in life, or to kitchen duties, it’s not because I’m breaking new grounds; it’s because my privilege allows me to do so. The #MeToo movement, which broke in India in 2018, gave access and voice to a primarily urban demographic to speak out against sexual harassment and other forms of VAW. There was a big message about breaking silence that is so endemic to our misogynistic culture. But another big message in the movement was that despite its scale and magnitude, it still didn’t affect the poor and the marginalised. And that matters because they make for a far bigger population than the urban ones.
Which is why women like Reena, Manisa and Charimaya are not found on your social media pages or viral stories. They don’t find space in prime-time news. Instead, they’re on the ground, and putting together a more impactful movement regardless of the risks they carry, and perhaps breaking more grounds than a viral tweet. And unlike the heroes that we create overnight on digital spaces, these invisible women take years to gain any form of recognition.
My bubble, made up of “visible” heroes, was shattered in the one week I spent meeting survivors and leaders in Nepal. That is not to say that my idea of feminism is misinformed. It just meant that I’ve been given a chance to expand my understanding of intersectional feminism and look at the ripple effects of singular acts of courage. It meant that feminism, when selective, practised in isolation or within the comforts of your bubble, may not amount to much. But most importantly, it meant that as women, we have the power to learn from each other’s strengths, and use it to empower others.
Looking back at this experience always takes me back to Manisa’s room, with its resilient blue walls and colourful bed. So how do you tell a roomful of strangers that you were sexually abused? As shown to us by Manisa, Reena and Charimaya—along with hundreds of women on the ground—telling your story is just the beginning. What you do with it is what really matters.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.