If you’d asked me to tell this story last year, I would have burst into tears and curled up into a ball on the floor.
After being sexually assaulted abroad, in the most vulnerable of situations, by someone whom I loved very much, all I felt that I could do was weep away my senses of self and trust — two of my strongest values.
I’ve always been a strong woman.
I am proud to stand up for what I believe in and be there to support those around me when faced with a difficult task or situation. I’m loud. I’m outgoing and open, and occasionally I have no filter.
So why, then, did I feel completely breathless, choking on my words, with my body frozen, when I awoke one night at a sleepover, in the home of the family I became like a daughter to while living to rural Rajasthan, India, with their youngest son groping me, cupping me between my legs, and trying to remove my pants?
In my sleepy state, confused if I was having a nightmare or if this was really happening, my body, my voice, and my conscience all seemed to fail me.
All this time later, I’m still unsure how I feel about what happened. But I do know this: Surviving it has made me a stronger, more empathetic person.
I moved to North India in January of 2015, having visited the country on a whim briefly the year before and fallen in love.
Before I had even come home from that first trip, I was already making plans to quit my job and save up enough money to get myself back into this land of color, culture, outstanding cuisine, and kind-hearted people. As a young 20-something with a passion for travel, culture, and international development, I could easily see myself finding work here and fitting in with day-to-day life.
I took a job with a local NGO based in Dharamsala and found myself living in one of their centers in a small village called Gajner, just outside the city of Bikaner, in rural Rajasthan. I had never felt more connected to a community, more in tune with my work, and more in love with the people I was working with than I did in Gajner.
One family in particular grew very close to my heart, and still are. I met them while wandering the village looking for a tailor, and from then on I began to visit every day. The family — my family — is Mataji and Pitaji, three sisters, two brothers, a sister-in-law, and a nephew.
It was through them that I learned about Indian culture. I learned that no one can make chappati the way Mataji does, and that there was more to India than the stories I would often hear from travelers on my weekends off. I also learned that women’s empowerment is currently a huge topic of conversation in India. What they taught me informed my fieldwork when developing microfinance projects and leading children’s programming at my NGO. I spent months as part of the family.
We’d sit for chai and chat about the educational plans and economic futures of the young girls in my microfinance programs. Many of the girls I met feared taking public transit or going places alone because they were often stared at, catcalled, or groped — and this fear, ultimately, discouraged them from pursuing higher education.
But learning from my new family about all the progress happening throughout the country made me think that change, worldwide, is not impossible, even if there is still so much work to be done.
Then, it happened.
And in that moment, I couldn’t move. My heart, my mind, and my soul were frozen. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I tried to make my vocal chords or muscles work, all while praying that I wouldn’t wake the rest of the family, who were all sleeping in the same room in their house — where I had been staying.
Eventually, I somehow found the strength to push the boy away from me, forcing him against the wall with a slight thud. He seemed surprised and terrified that I was awake.
I felt taken advantage of. I felt helpless. I kept reviewing in my head all the things that I could have done to stop what had happened from happening. How could someone I trusted and loved so much hurt me?
The next morning, I awoke with a headache and anxiety.
I rushed out of the family’s house and back to mine in a hurry. Usually I would always stay for breakfast and chai before heading home to work, so the fact that I returned home so early seemed very strange to my housemates, instantly raising a red flag.
I was silent for a while about the incident, unsure of my next step. Something awful, scarring, and disturbing had happened to me and I didn’t know what to do.
I was afraid to be around my family. I was afraid to be too close to men in the street, on the bus, and in the market. I wasn’t me. I wasn’t, and still am not, that person.
I couldn’t find my ability to trust. I couldn’t put on the smile that I normally always wear. All I wanted was my mother, who was halfway across the world, but I also didn’t want her to worry.
When I finally told my roommate what had happened, she walked me through all the options that I would normally have given to the girls in my program. The tables had turned.
All the advocacy I had done and workshops I had led for my girls had seemed so blurry and distant when it had happened. For a long time after, I wondered how I could coach them on how to deal with sexual harassment, assault, and inappropriate interactions with men, when I couldn’t even breathe through it myself. When I could barely find the courage to tell my friend.
But I knew I had to take my own advice.
Although it took longer than I’d like to admit, eventually I faced the boy who had done this to me. I finally built up the courage, walked over to his house, pulled him aside, told him very clearly that what he had done to me, he can never do to anyone ever again. I told him it is wrong, it is evil, and it makes him a bad person.
I’ve never seen so much shame and embarrassment spread across a person’s face so quickly. He slunk away halfway through the conversation and couldn’t look me in the eye for months after.
I was afraid to tell Mataji and Pitaji, and I still haven’t.
Though time has passed and we have moved on from the incident, our relationship is ruined. I saw shame on every inch of him — seeming to flow through his veins — anytime I visited the family thereafter.
It was my girls who kept me going.
No matter how much strength, courage, and training you’ve been given on sexual harassment and assault, you are never prepared for when it happens to you. It’s scary that we live in a world where we even need to be prepared for it, but we do.
In a way, this experience helped me connect more with the girls in my program. Now, when I give them advice, I have something to personally relate to. I teach them how to persevere, and ensure they know that they are not the only one this has happened to. I tell them that there are other women who they can connect with to help heal if something bad happens, even if hopefully nothing ever will.
India is and will always be my second home.
India has taught me so much about myself, courage, independence, and peace. And, for me, I feel stronger having survived this experience.
Despite all this, I feel inspired to work with my girls and tell them about what positive, meaningful, and healthy love, relationships, and friendship can be like with men.
And above all, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over the past two years — that I’m grateful to be able to share with my girls — is that equality is only possible when we teach our girls and our boys to respect one another. When we teach our young people how to treat each other and hold them accountable for their actions, things like this will become less frequent across the world.
I’ll never forget what happened to me and it will always bring back a feeling of a fear when I think about it, but I have been able to learn, teach, and bring about positive change because of it. I’ve learned how to truly find and raise my voice.