Sexual violence and justice in India: A survivor’s story
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Sexual violence and justice in India: A survivor’s story

Jenny Wen arrived in India earlier this spring as part of a grand trip around the world. She had already made her way through Europe and Southeast Asia, and was spending time on the subcontinent before heading to South America. The trip had long been a dream of hers, but not just because she was intrigued by the nomadic lifestyle. Wen was traveling to study sexual violence and how survivors heal, navigate resources, and empower themselves around the globe, as part of her research with the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. She is preparing to start medical school at Johns Hopkins University, and plans to get her MD and a master’s in public health.

In a cruel, ironic twist, Wen was forced to confront the issue of sexual violence in a personal way. While she was hospitalized at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, a renowned medical center in Delhi, a physician molested her. Wen says she was preparing to check out after several days in the hospital, and was told a doctor had to do a final exam before she was cleared to leave. She later learned the doctor was only supposed to check her vital signs, but the physician who came into her room began what she at first thought was a routine physical. Wen says the doctor molested her during the exam, taking advantage of the fact that she was alone and didn’t speak the language, and that he was the highest-ranking authority on duty at the time.

Wen says she was shaken but immediately determined to report the doctor. A family friend arrived to bring her home from the hospital and accompanied Wen to find a manager or HR staff. They were repeatedly told the doctor was the highest-ranking person on duty at the time, which Wen says they later found out to be untrue. But, she says, no one on duty was aware of who else she might have reported to.

But Wen was not to be deterred. Even then, she was adamant that hers was not going to be “a sad victim story.”

To hear Wen tell it, the remaining days and weeks of her stay in India were grueling, spent desperately trying to press criminal charges to have the doctor removed from his job and stripped of his license. Wen declined to name the doctor for this story, due to the ongoing court case.

“I just can’t bear to think about how many times he’s done this before,” she says. “If he’s that brazen to do that to me when I’m awake and alert with full faculties, I can’t imagine what he would have done if I had been drugged, sedated or asleep, as patients often are; what he’s already done to other people.”

Wen appealed to a local NGO, Jagori, for assistance in filing a complaint with the police and hospital. Due to confusion and a language barrier, Wen was initially told she could not press criminal charges because she was leaving the country and would not be there in person for the trial. She says authorities took her seriously after she demanded they take action, and heard her speaking with the U.S. Embassy about options for pressing charges. The hospital arranged for her to testify against the doctor in front of its Internal Complaints Committee. In order to expedite the process, Wen and the doctor testified while in the same room. She says he accused her of lying and asked pointed questions she believes were meant to embarrass her.

“It’s not a useful strategy because I want to be a gynecologist and have studied sexual health and sexual violence for so long,” she says. “I’m not embarrassed to talk about this stuff at all.”

The ICC ultimately ruled in Wen’s favor and the doctor was fired. But she was still committed to doing what she could to see him criminally charged. She learned from U.S. Embassy officials that she could file criminal charges and apply for video conferencing at the trial if she could not be in the country. The process of filing the complaint was a study in bureaucratic red tape, by her accounts. She went to court twice to have her case reviewed by the judge, once on her own initiative and once on a date set by the judge. In both instances, the proceedings were postponed because there were not enough guards available to bring the accused doctor to court (Wen was told most police officers were helping with the elections). However, two hearings have been held since she left India and she expects a third to take place June 24.

The grueling reporting process opened Wen’s eyes to the difficulty of getting justice even when one has time, resources, and people willing to help. Wen says she is thankful that hospital administrators and local police were willing to hear her story and help bring the doctor to justice, but she knows much of that support was given because she is a foreigner.

“I’m very grateful they took me seriously, but I highly suspect it’s because I’m a foreigner, because I’m an American,” she said. “They even used the phrase, ‘We want to show that we treat our foreign guests well.’ I want to be taken seriously because a crime has been committed.”

Wen says the local attitude toward the crime was sympathetic but in many ways cynical.

“If you’re a woman — if you’re a person — it’s just part of life. People didn’t understand why I got upset about it,” she says.

Some even said getting the doctor fired and sent to jail wouldn’t matter because he could buy a new license once he was released. But she still had to try, and says despite the trauma of the experience, she is optimistic about changing the tide of sexual violence around the world.

India has drawn international scrutiny in recent years due to a number of high-profile rape and murder cases. A simple Google search returns an alarming number of articles about rapes reported in the last several days alone. People have taken to the street to demand stronger laws and better protection for women, and politicians have rightly been criticized for backward and disturbing remarks about rape.

The situation is grim, though new laws have been passed. Wen says she benefited directly from the new policies, which allowed her to expedite the legal processes. The police had a policy requiring officers to bring survivors to a women’s NGO for counseling and support after testifying before a judge, and the hospital was required to investigate her complaints under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013.

Whether the doctor will lose his license remains to be seen, as Wen says her lawyers and others involved in her case are unclear about the process for getting a medical license revoked. But she hopes her case will prevent him from violating other patients and will deter other would-be attackers from abusing positions of power in this way.

Wen says the experience taught her more about the “nitty gritty of red tape, legal proceedings, and the huge, complex legal bureaucracy” survivors must navigate when reporting a crime of sexual violence. An ongoing goal of hers is breaking the stigma that sexual assault survivors should be ashamed of what’s happened to them.

“I want to change our culture of how we look at sexual violence, how we look at survivors,” she says. Being violated by a doctor, a person in a position of such esteem and trust, has shaken her confidence in the profession, though she still plans to study medicine. But it has also given her a platform from which to empathize with other survivors, and to advocate for more effective support and for health care as a gateway to resources. Changing attitudes and reforming the system is an ongoing challenge, but Wen believes it is possible.

“My message is one of optimism,” she says. “It’s difficult but we can [do it] and we need to.”