INDIA: If Not Now, Then When?

A woman looks toward the sun. She wears a ponytail and jacket and appears to be in a forest setting.

Photo Credit: Canva

Rasika Sundaram launched The Neeti Project, an initiative that provides support and resources to survivors, after hearing stories of interpersonal violence and confronting her own experience.

After witnessing stories of interpersonal violence, Rasika Sundaram launched The Neeti Project, an organization that offers support and resources to create systemic change for survivors.

“Survivors’ lived experiences are irreplaceable, and they are the people who hold first-hand knowledge of flaws in services established for their benefit.”

Rasika Sundaram

Stories were an intrinsic part of my upbringing in India. As children, my sister and I would sit wide-eyed with palms resting on our chins, listening to our elders narrate mythological tales of valor, righteousness, and love. One of my favorites was Ramayana when Lord Ram and his army built a bridge using rocks to invade a foreign land and rescue his kidnapped lady-love, Queen Sita. I also loved Mahabharata when Lord Krishna saved princess Draupadi from being humiliated by the antagonists conspiring to publicly disrobe her. 

As I entered my naive adolescent years, I heard my peers’ stories. These narratives were a stark contrast: their lived experiences ranged from eerie encounters with strangers in public spaces to strange security guards protecting their apartment gates who would engage in inappropriate touching. The tales I heard became more spine-chilling as time passed and I became a young adult. 

I recall observing a close friend who suddenly became distant from me. Two years later, she reconnected via social media. During one of our intense catch-up sessions, I discovered that the change in her behavior at the time was the result of a sexual assault perpetrated by her previous partner. She shared her ordeal of having to seek a secret abortion – how the process racked her body with weakness and nausea. “Why didn’t you go to the police?” I asked, my eyes red and cheeks stained with tears. “How could I?” she responded. “He won’t go to jail. He’s influential! What if he came back for revenge?”

I didn’t need to search for data or statistics to know there was a significant problem in front of me. Every friend I became close with shared a story of interpersonal violence. The ancient histories I listened to as a child and the contemporary narratives I heard all had a common theme: aggressors perpetrating acts of physical force intended to hurt, offend, shame, or gain power over someone. The difference lay in how no present-day survivor sought or received support for the trauma they had experienced. My heart burned with passion, and my soul was ready to tackle the problem of sexual and gender-based violence in my region, Chennai and India at large. I pursued volunteer opportunities and internships to enhance my knowledge and skills in the field. The only thing I lacked was lived experience. 

But as I brainstormed ideas to create a prospective organization for survivors of violence, I confronted my own experience. He was a close friend — someone I’d grown up with since school and had known for eight years. We’d shared numerous experiences, and he was a trusted confidante and a constant support system. Thus, I assumed no reason to remain cautious that day when I entered his room to work together. He regrettably disregarded my physical and verbal resistance to his sexual advances. I confronted him after the unfortunate incident, to which he initially appeared apologetic but progressively began to psychologically manipulate the events of that fateful day. 

I sought out several mental health professionals, one of whom shamed and blamed me for the incident. Legal redress appeared unimaginable, with lawyers highlighting how re-traumatizing the process may be. Each month, I fell deeper into a dark pit of misery and sorrow. However, I began to sense an unusual connection with all the survivors who had bravely confided their trials and tribulations with me. Why was the onus on us to seek reparation and rehabilitation? Why are we shamed, blamed, and judged for the wrongful actions of another? What wrong did we do to experience this darkness while the person or people who committed the harm were unapologetically at liberty? These questions led to the birth of The Neeti Project: an initiative focused on two-way communication between survivors and bystanders of sexual and gender-based violence.

My experience and conversations with others have taught me that survivors lack awareness regarding how and where to access resources. Even if awareness exists, stigma, fear of humiliation, re-traumatization, and discouragement from service providers causes survivors to stray away from seeking help. The Neeti Project is my attempt to bridge this gap. The initiative is currently a blog working to provide supportive information regarding rights and laws in India, resource availability (legal and mental health), and the expectations survivors should have regarding these resources. The blog also normalizes various states of mind that survivors or bystanders may experience after confronting an unfortunate incident. 

I’ve also learned that survivors’ lived experiences are irreplaceable, and they are the people who hold first-hand knowledge of flaws in services established for their benefit. Survivors need to be involved when we think of improving current systems. Recognizing this, The Neeti Project is conducting research to collect information from survivors regarding the shortcomings they have experienced with various support systems and services, their perceptions of justice and whether it’s obtainable, and their assessments of perpetrator reform and accountability. 

The goal of this research is to push for survivor-oriented social transformation by rectifying drawbacks present in the current systems and services, prioritizing care, warmth, and sensitivity toward survivor experiences, and advocating for aggressor accountability and reform through the eyes of survivors. The valuable data collected can be used in numerous ways to create alternative systems involving policy change, awareness raising, skill building, capacity building, training, and campaigning. 

To every individual reading this story: sexual and gender-based violence remains a pervasive economic, health, and human rights crisis in my country. Every individual deserves a life filled with safety, security, and joy. I urge you to share and amplify the objectives of my initiative, The Neeti Project: A Frontier for Empathy, Accountability, and Justice. I invite you to encourage, engage, and collaborate with the initiative because two heads are always better than one. Furthermore, I request qualitative researchers, professionals in the computer and information technology sector, other specialists who can improve the initiative, and funders to engage so we can find avenues to expand this project to reach wider audiences. Lastly, I encourage survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to participate in this project’s research because your words and voice truly matter. I implore readers to contemplate this saying by activist and actor Emma Watson during the 2014 HeforShe campaign: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”


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