Breaking the silence: Photographer empowers victims of sexual violence

Blamed, shamed, judged and forced to remain silent.

Those are a just a few of the things Indian women and girls deal with after experiencing one of the most atrocious acts of humanity: Rape.

The lack of women’s rights and cases of sexual assaults are increasing in India. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicated that at least 92 women are raped daily and it is common that the offenders are close family members or known to the victim. The number of cases reported in 2013 reached up to 33,707. Unfortunately there are thousands of cases that go unreported, simply because authorities look at it as something normal and they don’t take them seriously.

Seventeen year old Kamalika Das was molested at school by a classmate. After filing a complaint with the principal, the tables turned and what she got in return was rejection and was told she was doing it for attention. She fought for her rights, for justice and to be heard, and the battle lasted 4 years. The humiliation was excruciating and ultimately took its toll. Last year, Kamalika ended her life by jumping from a seven story building.

Her cousin, Smita Sharma, a well-known photojournalist and documentary photographer, created the Kamalika Foundation in her honor. Smita was 18 when she was molested by her professor, and like Kamalika, she was also rejected and victimized.

Smita was born and raised in the Himalayan Foothills of Shillong City, India. She now works out of New York and Kolkata. She is working on a photo project about survivors and their life after rape: Chronicles of Courage.

For the last year, she has traveled through four different states in India, most remote villages, trying to find victims with the help of nongovernmental organizations and local hospitals.

“In the past year, I have met twenty-four rape survivors and their families. Regardless of their individual stories they each expressed one common sentiment: ‘Why is this our fault? Why are we being harassed, ostracized and victimized?’” Smita says.

On Dec. 14, 2015, Smita launched her first crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $18,000. By Jan. 1, with the help of 264 backers and with still 15 days to go, she surpassed her goal, collecting $20,875.

“Many girls drop out of school out of fear and shame and are vulnerable when they commute to school, which is often very far away from their homes,” Smita said.

Smita’s plan is to continue travelling and photographing victims as long as possible. Her goal is to take her project to a higher level by creating a documentary film and presenting it with the purpose of getting other girls to speak out, spread awareness and address the issue not only in rural communities but also at schools, institutions, hospitals and local NGO’S in India.

“I hope to discover regional nuances that contribute to this mindset. By doing so, we can open discussions, build empathy, change mindsets, and work towards solutions,” she said.

It’s been arduous work since she started “Chronicles of Courage” considering the fact that arriving to the most dangerous destinations implicates a serious menace to her safety. She has to disguise herself and she never travels alone.

There’s a powerful and unique vision in her work, she accomplishes it by building trust with her subjects, which sometimes it is very difficult to achieve. She rarely asks about how their tragedies happened, she rather focus on getting to know the girls as human beings and not like society sees them; as objects, a stigma or a disgrace to their families honor.

Ms. Sharma is currently collaborating with three powerful organizations: Safe City and Actions Breaks Silence who are dedicated in community work and building workshops in South India. She will be donating a multimedia piece that will help “break the silence and highlight the subject of shaming and ostracisation,” she said.

The third organization is PVCHR (People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Right) Smita will be helping their campaign “Bicycles for Freedom.” She is now trying to extend her crowdfunding pledge to $30,000 to buy bicycles and donate them to some of the survivors so they can continue their education.

She rarely asks about how their tragedies happened, she rather focus on getting to know the girls as human beings and not like society sees them; as objects, a stigma or a disgrace to their families honor.

“Many girls drop out of school out of fear and shame and are vulnerable when they commute to school, which is often very far away from their homes,” Smita said.

Her work was exhibited last December at the India Habitat Center. It was produced by Proof along with Rape in India Project.

Go to her website or Kickstarter campaign page to see more of her work. You can also follow Smita Sharma on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

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Sophia Montoya
Sophia Montoya is a photographer based in Tijuana, Mexico. She graduated from Universidad Iberoamericana with a B.A in Communications. She currently works as a music photojournalist under the alias of “Zophie Felina” collaborating with bands and documenting the rock and roll music scene. She is Through the Cracks Spanish translator and contributor.

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