A 40-year-old woman from northern India committed suicide in January after a video of her being raped was circulated on WhatsApp. The BBC’s Divya Arya travelled to the village in Uttar Pradesh to hear the full story.
Geeta was a brave woman. She was a health worker in a rural area of northern India, a job that meant she often walked alone between the surrounding villages, sometimes after dark, visiting strangers’ houses.
Her income supported the whole family, including an alcoholic husband and three teenage children. They lived in a brick house that had no door or toilet, but Geeta was proud that she had been able to educate her daughter and her two sons.
Towards the end of 2015, a young man from a nearby village started following Geeta. He had first seen her when she helped his brother’s wife to give birth. When Geeta refused to speak with him, he began to threaten her. According to Geeta’s friend and colleague, Khushboo, the man snatched her phone in the street and told her, “If I find you alone, I won’t let you go.”
Geeta must have heard stories about sexual assault in the villages where she worked. Eighteen months earlier, in 2014, her home state of Uttar Pradesh made international headlines when two teenage girls were raped and murdered in the village of Badaun. She must have known, too, that in the patriarchal and honour-bound culture of the village, she could be blamed for “inviting” the sexual advances of a man – even if those advances were unwelcome, intimidating, or violent.
The next time she was called out to the man’s village, she told Khushboo she was afraid to go alone. Khushboo immediately offered to go with her, and was alarmed to see the man “roaming around” the village. She urged Geeta to tell the village elders about the situation. Convinced that any such a request would backfire, Geeta refused. “They’ll only find fault with me,” she said.
A few days later, when the two friends were going to administer polio drops to children, Geeta told Khushboo that “something bad had happened”. When Khushboo questioned her further, Geeta said that the man, together with three of his friends, had followed her out of the village. The men, she said, had forced themselves upon her and “torn her clothes”.
This is one of a series of stories looking at a new and disturbing phenomenon – the use of private or sexually explicit images to threaten, blackmail and shame young people, mainly girls and women, in some of the world’s most conservative societies. Explore all the stories and join the conversation here.
Khushboo is adamant that Geeta, although distraught, was not suicidal. “I said to her, ‘We’re all with you; just don’t do anything drastic.’ But at that point Geeta was not thinking about death. In fact, she was thinking of going to the police. She told me, ‘I’ll report them. I’ll find out the names of the men who abused me and get them arrested.'”
But before Geeta could gather the courage to tell the police, a video of the rape began to circulate on the messaging service WhatsApp. Within hours it was being watched and shared on mobile phones by young and old men, while women spoke in hushed whispers.
“She called me,” says Khushboo, “and said that it had become difficult to go out of the house because all her neighbours knew about ‘it’. She sounded so worried. She asked me if anyone knew about ‘it’ in my neighbourhood.”
Geeta’s intuition that she would be shamed and blamed for attracting the predatory advances of a man was eventually borne out.
“Those last days she was so sad,” says Khushboo. “She wasn’t even eating properly… The day before she died, she told me that she had gone to the local doctor and told him everything. He had said, ‘Go back home and stay quiet, it’s all your fault.’ She also went to the former head of the village, but he also said, ‘It’s your fault – what can we do about it?'”
That was the final blow. The next afternoon, Geeta was found foaming at the mouth on a roadside on the outskirts of the village. She died before she could be taken to hospital. The post-mortem confirmed death by poisoning.
The rape and shaming of Geeta is not an isolated incident. In recent years, mobile phones and chat apps have spread through even the poorest and most remote areas of the country, and India has seen a series of recent cases in which gang rapes have been filmed on mobile phones and circulated on messaging services.
In August 2016, the Times of India found that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of video clips of sexual assault were being sold in shops across Uttar Pradesh every day. One shopkeeper in
Agra told the newspaper, “Porn is passé. These real life crimes are the rage.” Another, according to the same report, was overheard telling customers that they might even know the girl in the “latest, hottest” video.
Sunita Krishnan, an activist who runs an anti-trafficking NGO in Hyderabad, recently told the Supreme Court she had collected more than 90 rape videos from social media.
Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court advocate, told the BBC that judges were so “appalled” by two reports of gang rape that were recently circulated via WhatsApp in southern India that they issued a special order to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to identify and pursue the perpetrators.
The court also asked the IT Ministry to examine what measures could be taken to block the online circulation of such videos. “Women are constantly being targeted,” he said, “and just because not enough cases are being talked about, that should not give us the complacent picture that everything is fine and hunky dory.”
At village level, many are more bothered about women using mobile phones at all than they are about men using them to intimidate rape victims or to share videos of sexual assaults.
A number of local councils in Uttar Pradesh, concerned with what they see as technology’s corrupting effect on traditional moral values, have prohibited girls from owning mobile phones.
“There is so much pressure on girls, and if by any chance they do lay their hands on a phone or use ear phones to listen to music, then they are branded ‘characterless'” says Rehana Adib, a social worker who took part in a fact-finding mission to study Geeta’s case. (“Characterless”, in India, implies loose morals.)
“When society and family squarely places the burden of honour and good character on the shoulders of women, and men are absolved of passing any test of integrity, then how can a woman who dares to be strong and independent survive?”
Following protests led by health workers from adjoining villages, three men have now been arrested for raping Geeta and for making and circulating the video.
But in her home village, anger over Geeta’s death is still muted by questions about her honour. Even Geeta’s own husband, who eventually found out about the video from his neighbours, shares the prevailing suspicion that she might have done something to encourage the attack. “If she had told me,” he says, “we’d have asked her if it was done with her consent. Then we’d have gathered the village elders to decide what action should be taken.” He shows no sign of outrage about the rape, and has made no demands for police action.
When the BBC spoke to the village doctor and the former village head, both men denied discouraging Geeta from going to the police, and blamed her for what had happened. To another villager, who asked not to be named, Geeta’s death required no special explanation: “How could she continue to live with this public humiliation?” he asked.
The same sentiment was echoed by Pradeep Gupta, the senior police official investigating the case. “It appears that the woman must have felt social pressure and that would have forced her to take her own life,” he said. “It is very unfortunate.”
In the village, then, the notion that rape places a burden of shame on the shoulders of the survivor continues unchallenged. Geeta’s death was, for many, inevitable. But that changes nothing for those left behind – especially Geeta’s daughter.
“It’s still very difficult,” she says. “Whenever I step out, someone would point at me and jeer, asking ‘Aren’t you ashamed of what happened with your mother?'”
The names “Geeta” and “Khushboo” have been made up, to protect the identities of the women involved