5 Yrs Post Nirbhaya: Distinguishing Between Survivor and Victim

Is the argument to call rape victims ‘survivors’ counter-productive to the fight against an unfair system?

5 min read
Hindi Female

(This story was first published on 24 July 2016. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the fifth anniversary of the Nirbhaya case. Five years on, we are still a long way from creating a safe space for women. A set of recent incidents involving gruesome rapes of women across the country has yet again raised several questions about the Indian society and the judiciary.)

In the gynaecology ward of a Rohtak hospital, a twenty-year-old college student who was gang-raped three years ago lies interned. She filed an FIR, got two men incarcerated, refused to accept Rs 50 lakh to drop the charges, and when her family received death threats, they moved to a another town.

On 17 July, she was allegedly gangraped. Again. By the same five men who were out on bail. She relived the trauma and its aftermath.

Would you Call her a Victim or a Survivor?

Is she a victim of the system that failed to protect her or a survivor of another assault by the same men?

Is the argument to call rape victims ‘survivors’ counter-productive to the fight against an unfair system?
The victim (L) with her relative and her brother who’s vowed to continue their fight for justice (R). (Photo Courtesy: ANI)

Activist-writer Sohaila Abdulali, says “being raped was terrible beyond words, but I think being alive is more important.” Sohaila has, through her essays and columns argued how rape is horrible because it hurts you in the most intimate way possible, not because you lose your virtue.

To say that that the college student from Rohtak survived the ordeal, and hence is a survivor, is a simplistic argument to make. The minor girl who was gang-raped and mutilated in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district did not make it, so she’s referred to as a rape victim.

But Aruna Shaunbaug lived for forty-two years after she was raped. She was brutally assaulted by a ward boy who used a dog chain to throttle her. It cut off blood and oxygen supply to her brain. Aruna was in a vegetative state for more than four decades at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. Successive pleas to euthanise her were rejected by Indian courts.

Was Aruna a Victim or a Survivor?

Is the argument to call rape victims ‘survivors’ counter-productive to the fight against an unfair system?
Aruna Shanbaug was cared for by the staff at the KEM hospital. (Photo: PTI)

The Media Debate

The Indian media is unsure of the politically correct way to refer to a person who’s been raped. The legally correct term is “victim”, and most international media agencies including Reuters continue to use it. But due to greater awareness and sensitisation, the question of how to designate rape victims has often cropped up in newsroom discussions. But is the argument to call all of them “rape survivors” counterproductive to fighting against an unfair system?

The term “survivor” is preferred by some because it recognises the person’s agency or the person’s ability to think and act independently. The connotation attached to “victim” is of a weak person, disenfranchised or bound by an unfair system.


“Park Street Rape Victim” Suzette Jordan decided to waive her right to anonymity and revealed her name and face on national television when she forgot to carry her scarf to mask her face at a protest rally.

On the night of 5 February 2012, after leaving a night club in a five star hotel in Kolkata, Suzette Jordan found herself pinned down in a car with three men in it. She was beaten up, a gun was shoved in her mouth and the men took turns raping her. She was thrown out of the car half-naked, half-dead on Park Street.

Despite being called a liar, and her rape termed a political conspiracy by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Suzette stopped cowering.

Suzette Was a Survivor Not Because of the System. She Was One, Despite It.

Is the argument to call rape victims ‘survivors’ counter-productive to the fight against an unfair system?
Suzette Jordan died of meningoencephalitis in March 2015. (Photo: Facebook/Suzette Katrina Jordan)

From Victim to Survivor

In 1988, Liz Kelly wrote about surviving sexual violence, and interviewed sixty women to know how they defined defined their experiences, the strategies they used to resist, cope and survive sexual violence. Her point was that it’s important for women to act collectively to bring a change in the legal system and the manner in which rape is reported. To do this, she said women had to view themselves and others as survivors, rather than victims.

Kelly’s book remains as relevant as it was 28 years ago. But should this burden to survive weigh in on the individual alone? Shouldn’t the system have helped Suzette survive, as opposed to victimising her?

Some activists believe that there has to be a transition from ‘victimhood’ to ‘survivor’, involving mental, physical and emotional healing – a sense of empowerment which wants one’s identity to go beyond “the one who was raped”. This can only happen when the system or the state enables it.

Is the argument to call rape victims ‘survivors’ counter-productive to the fight against an unfair system?
Candle light march for the 14-year-old who was gangraped and murdered in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. (Photo: Twitter/ @TuslidasBhoite)

The Indian Paradox

An ideal system would involve a sensitive and pro-active police, an efficient criminal justice system and a supportive societal structure that enables a person to transition.

The police, the criminal justice system and our collective social mindset has to enable a person to shed the feeling of being wronged, shamed and victimised. Only then, perhaps, can one feel less like a victim and more like a survivor.

One would think that a developed state is less likely to lend a notion of victimhood than a less developed one. It’s convenient to say that women like Sohaila and Suzette were able to speak out because they were educated women who belonged to a more progressive, urban environment.

In India, women like Phoolan Devi, Bilkis Bano and Sampat Pal Devi have challenged the system and emerged as survivors, in spite of the system being stacked against them.

But let’s not give the system more credit than is due. Lets not gift-wrap victimhood and put a bow on it.


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Topics:  Rape   Gangrape   December 16 Gangrape 

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