When Jenny Wen traveled to New Delhi to interview female survivors of sexual assault, she never thought she would end up being molested herself. And that was just the beginning of her ordeal in India.
Wen, a 22-year-old graduate of Rice University in Texas, was awarded a $28,000 fellowship for a year of travel and independent study outside the U.S. Her interest in female sexual assault survivors took her to Sweden, Germany, Turkey, South Africa and other countries. Her seventh stop was India, where she planned to study how the international spotlight on India’s rape problem had changed things on the ground.
After contracting an infection and fever when she arrived in New Delhi, Wen said, she was admitted to the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, one of India’s premiere private hospitals. After five days of treatment, she was ready to be discharged. That night, she said, the male junior doctor in charge groped her repeatedly on the pretext of doing a vitals check.
“I was very confused because at first, I trusted him because I thought he was my doctor,” she said. “I was extremely uncomfortable, but I was justifying his actions, like, ‘This must be necessary.’”
India is still a predominantly patriarchal society in which women — especially young unmarried women — are treated as second-class citizens. When a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was beaten and gang-raped by six men on a moving bus in December 2012, the incident sparked anti-rape protests across the nation and public demand for stricter legislation on sexual violence.
In March 2013 the Indian government passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which increased the maximum sentence for rape to 20 years and prescribed the death penalty for the rapist if the victim dies or goes into a coma.
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, reports of rape in 2012 increased by almost 14 percent from 2008.
“The difference is that now women are raising their voice[s] and seeking help,” said Bandita Gogoi, a project associate for Jagori, a local women’s organization that supports survivors of violence. “That’s a big step.”
Wen turned to Jagori for help the day after the incident.
“Jagori is all about the complainant and what she wants to do. We don’t decide the outcome. We only support,” said Gogoi, who became Wen’s representative. “Me and one of my colleagues accompanied Jenny because she did not know what to say or not say.”
She also went to the hospital authorities and then filed a police report. The American Embassy contacted her after being notified by the police and hospital. It said she could press criminal charges.
“I wanted to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law,” said Wen. “I wanted to do as much as within my power.”
While she ultimately stayed in New Delhi for a month, her experience caused her to put her research aside. She said the communication barriers and lack of organization, coordination and information made following up on the assault a full-time job.
“In India there are so many people, there are so many things that if you don’t push, you won’t be remembered,” Wen said.
The hospital told Wen that her complaint was forwarded to the hospitals’ internal complaints committee and that the doctor was suspended while an inquiry was conducted.
Wen said her research and awareness about sexual assault helped her deal with the trauma — somewhat.
“I learned enough about victim blaming, misogyny, patriarchal cultural attitudes toward sexuality and rape myths to not internalize self-blame,” she said. “The traumatic effects were probably mitigated from experience and perspective but definitely not eliminated.”
The emotional stress slowed her recovery, she said.
Six days after the assault, Wen informed her friends and acquaintances of the incident by posting a Facebook status update.
“I write to make a point that I refuse to carry around the burden of shame for someone else’s evil and shameful deed, to try to make sense out of something senseless, to hopefully make something good come out of something evil,” she wrote.
The post was shared 961 times and received 251 likes and 47 comments. It became a forum for gathering resources to fight and heal.
“In a way, it gave me so much strength,” Wen said.
Several of her classmates in the United States who were Indian or had relatives in India offered help. Through a contact of an Indian friend’s parents, she was able to get a meeting with the deputy police chief of Sarita Vihar, a residential colony close to the hospital. He told Wen he would help expedite her case.
“It’s very easy to get bogged down in the system and get disappointed in how difficult everything is, and I constantly had to justify myself,” Wen said. “So to have so many friends and family and strangers stand behind me and believe in me and believe in change and believe what I’m doing is important gave me so much hope and gave me strength to keep fighting.”
The fighting eventually proved successful.
“The hospital acted upon the recommendations of the committee to terminate the doctor’s services from the hospital,” said Dr. Karan Thakur, deputy general manager at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals.
“I just break down and cry,” Wen said, recalling being told the doctor was fired. “I totally just sob uncontrollably.”
But she is still fighting to get the doctor charged.
“We arrested the doctor and sent him to judicial custody,” said Maninder Singh, station house officer at Sarita Vihar. “The case is under trial, and it will take about three months, depending on the judge, to reach a decision.”
The court accepted Wen’s application to testify during hearings via digital video conferencing so she can continue her research in Asia and South America. The next hearing is scheduled for June 24.
Wen said in some ways the experience taught her a great deal about the subject she has been researching, especially navigating the legal system.
She said much of her success was possible because she is American and has significantly more privilege than most women in India. She has an iPad, a smartphone and access to the Internet, research tools and social media, among other resources.
Despite the growing use of social media by organizations to educate and support Indian women, Gogoi said, the real challenge is “reaching women who have no access to Internet or even a mobile phone.”
That challenge is not lost on Wen.
“I felt a lot of pain, a lot of sadness because I realized that if it is this emotionally and logistically difficult for me, who is very prepared in some ways,” she said, “I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for the average [woman in India].”