"Will the Judge think I am a bad girl uncle, if I tell her what happened to me?"
This was the question that 11-year-old Priya* posed to her advocate N Ramesh before she gave her statement before a judge at the Mahila court. The young child, who has a hearing disability had allegedly been raped by 17 persons, who were all employed at the apartment complex that she lived in at Ayanavaram in Chennai. And while the multiple rapes allegedly took place between January and July of 2018, the minor was forced to relive its sordid details in court this last year, many times.
"Every one of the accused had a different lawyer and she was cross examined by 16 advocates, " says advocate Ramesh. "The judge of course restricted several questions, but she was still forced to hear them and had to cope with the shame she had internalised since the rape began. There is nothing worse than a child blaming herself for a crime committed against her," he adds.
But Priya's ordeal is finally coming to a conclusion on February 1, close to a year since the trial in her case began, with the court set to pronounce its verdict on Saturday.
According to her advocate Priya was sexually assaulted, raped and even gang raped in a building she called her home, by men aged between 23 and 65. They worked as security guards, lift operators and in the housekeeping department. In her statement she says she was threatened by the accused who said that her family will be murdered if she revealed what was happening to her. It took Priya five months to open up to her elder sister, Anuja*, who had come home for a holiday.
Speaking to TNM, Anuja says, her sister's nightmare transformed into slander and many times stigma.
"In our case, my 11-year-old sister was blamed by the society," she points out. "They questioned her character, I mean, she was 11 for godâ€™s sake. "The parents residing in the apartment kept their kids away from my sister. What did they think playing with a rape victim would result in?" she asks.
The family moved away from the building a month after they gave a police complaint about the rape. According to the sister and Ramesh, a few lawyers of the accused alleged that the child and her family were 'immoral' and that the parents had knowingly engaged Priya in prostitution.
"We almost broke down in the court during the process," says Anuja. "We havenâ€™t had a proper nightâ€™s sleep and we wonâ€™t until the little girl gets the justice she deserves," she adds.
Anuja however, says she is proud of the fight her sister has put up and the strength she displayed even when questioned multiple times. She believes the verdict in the case will be a catalyst for change.
"Maybe they (society) will gain a broader perspective in life, maybe theyâ€™ll understand the essence of strength and courage from the victim, and for all we know, it could have been anyoneâ€™s child," she points out. "As a society, we should stop shaming and isolating victims, we should understand and support them and their families. Raise your voice for whatâ€™s important, for the things that matter, for the things that can help make this country a safer and better place to live," she adds.