I Think: Trigger warnings are a must
Ratna Gill, social activist, Mumbai
I work at a non-profit called Aangan Trust that works to prevent serious child harm — trafficking, labour, early marriage, abuse — across India. I grew up near Washington, D.C. and I moved to Mumbai almost two years ago to start my work with Aangan. This was in large part because I was feeling disconnected from grassroots work and wished to spend time with the communities I aim to serve. For me, this is survivors of sexual violence who come from vulnerable communities, because I believe they are the ones whose voice is most often not heard (or worse, silenced).
I prefer to get my news in the form of long-form pieces (think Caravan or Newslaundry), because it is frustrating to me to read about events without having them situated in their larger contexts. If I am sitting down to read news, I want to feel like I’ve gained a holistic understanding of an issue rather than consumed a headline or listicle.
I avoid news about sexual violence almost completely because so much of my work consists of reading stories of abuse (whether real incidents or case studies), I find it extremely draining to read about rape outside of work hours. That being said, of course, when my cup is feeling full and I have properly engaged in self-care, it is a topic that I am passionate about understanding so I do engage with news about violence to continue to grow my competency as an advocate.
For me, it is a physical reaction first [to news on sexual violence]. The news impacts me viscerally and my skin starts to crawl. I have to think critically about whether I want to keep reading, with every passing paragraph. This is why I appreciate trigger warnings immensely. They allow me to figure out if I am in the right head space to intake the information.
Reporting on sexual violence often uses a single person’s experience to draw readers in. But I can’t help but wonder: is everyone having the same reaction as I am? The impact of such pieces is powerful. But are cis, straight men who have not experienced abuse feeling their skin crawl the way I am? Is that the goal? If so, are we putting our suffering on display in an effort to persuade the apathetic or the oppressors?
If the goal of personal stories is to allow survivors the liberation and the voice to speak openly to their experience, I could not be more on board. I am on that team! If the goal is to make ourselves vulnerable once again to an audience that will not be persuaded by our pain, I think we need to look at that choice a bit more critically.
I think the media can support survivors by reporting on sexual violence as a systemic issue. Rather than writing an eye-grabbing piece when a minor is raped or a scandal occurs in a shelter home, cover systemic issues like patriarchal gender norms, political apathy, and our history as a country — some of the many factors acting upon our relationship with violence and misogyny.
Five women were raped every day in Delhi last year; 350 crimes against children are committed every day, across the country. In 98% of sexual violence incidents, the perpetrator is someone well known to the victim. These metrics are available publicly, but we also know that cases are grossly under-reported. I have seen this first-hand because this is one of the issues that Aangan works on: to bridge the gap between incidents a child might share with a trusted adult vs. cases the child goes on to formally report to the police. It starts with us. Each of us needs to interrogate the toxic patriarchy or violence that exists within us and do what we can to dismantle it.
Media, non-profits, therapists, et al. can support us on this journey, but at the end of the day it is deeply personal work that each of us has to do because sexism and violence are structural and systemic. Of course, we must not forget the role that the underlying forces of poverty and patriarchy will continue to play. We cannot combat this issue without dismantling the idea that violence is somehow “okay,” or often, a sign of strength. We cannot effectively push back against abuse without considering what role poverty has to play in inter-generational violence and oppression.
Discussing gender norms, particularly with young men and boys, is crucial. My focus would be to show my audience the forest through the trees: start to investigate the larger systemic undercurrents that are part of the fabric of our society (and perhaps all societies) to interrogate what we as a country can collectively do to dismantle a system that supports sexual violence and abuse.