While the fear of losing a child in a crowd terrifies every parent, there is something even more sinister in those masses of people. It is easy for children to disappear in crowds – but they are also a place where predators can hide in plain sight.
As people are pushed around uncontrollably, some fellows take advantage of the chaos and – hidden from the victim’s eyes – abuse and molest women and children.
Gita was 16 when she went to watch a cricket match with her cousins and family at a stadium in Odisha, India. Cricket is an immensely popular sport in India which always attracts a heavy crowd whenever there is a match scheduled in a city.
Gita, which is not her real name, spoke with Youth Journalism International on the condition that her identity remain confidential.
Gita and her brothers had VIP tickets to this special match. A day that should have been fun turned ugly and painful for Gita.
While going through the queue, one brother was ahead of her while she held his hand and followed him. As they made their way through the queue, disorderly pushing began and people in line started to rub against each other recklessly.
That’s when a man assaulted Gita.
“There was a man behind who was pressed extremely [close] to me,” said Gita, who initially tried to ignore it, thinking it was just because of the crowd. “But after sometime, I could feel his crotch making uncomfortable movements against my hips while his hands were on my waist.
“I froze, realizing his actions,” she continued.
“I couldn’t move. He then unbuttoned my jeans and put his hand into my sweater, grabbed my breasts. His hands kept fondling around my privates for some while. I tried to call my cousin but I just couldn’t. I just tried to push him back. There were so many people that it was difficult to notice what is happening neck down. So with some strength, I clenched my cousin’s hand so he looked back. I seemed teary so he thought I was feeling suffocated.”
Her brother pulled hard on her hand and she broke free.
Like the assailant, the matter of sexual abuse in public also stays hidden. That emboldens abusers and creates more victims who may fear crowds and strangers for life.
“I still feel scared going into crowded places, even with friends or family,” said Gita, “so I avoid it mostly.”
She said she becomes fully alert when talking with strangers and always maintains a safe distance.
Public molestation has become a part of daily life in India with people just accepting it as a norm. Victims are blamed or asked to accept it and move on, while molesters just keep on shifting from one crowd to another, spotting new targets.
Gita offered this advice to other young women.
“Stay alert. A bad touch is a bad touch, a crowd is just an excuse,” she said. “Don’t mistake it. Don’t let the silence take over you.”
Till this day Gita remembers the incident, which took place in 2016. The date – December 20 – triggers painful memories.
After the sexual assault, Gita said she couldn’t get the disgusting feeling out of her mind. She showered for three hours the next day. She threw away the jeans and shirt she was wearing that day and never touched them since.
“During that time, I locked myself in my room for days, kept writing my feelings; the anger, what ifs. I would call up a friend or cousin to talk it out.”
Gita said there was no coping with it. She outgrew the hurt, she said, but continues to live with the trauma.
“I still suffer from flashbacks. I even sometimes wake up in the middle of the night panting as if it were happening again,” said Gita.
Immediately after it happened, Gita did talk about the attack with the older brother who was with her at the time. Later, she told her friends and other family members. All expressed anger and frustration over the incident, she said, but they can only sympathize because no one – even Gita – knows who attacked her.
The only thing she could gather was the man was wearing a purple sweater.
Talking about how she coped with the situation and the dreadful feeling for years, Gita said she is getting stronger and is not afraid to voice her thoughts.
“I write about it in my journals. It helps me be more honest and expressible. I remind myself to get stronger and now I know how to act right in the moment if anything of that sort happens with me or anyone in front of me,” she said.
Like Gita, many girls may find themselves in the middle of the crowds which frequently form in India.
The abusers escape, leaving the victims with miserable feelings and painful memories as they stay in the dark about who did this to them. These victims are often children or teens who are even confused about what is being done to them.
But Gita lives with the regret that she couldn’t do anything during the assault. She feels like she failed herself.
“I avoided making a fuss of it in the crowd and stood there silent, screaming in my head,” she said. “I failed myself that moment. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t do anything.”
Purnima Priyadarsini is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.
This article is part of the No one is safe project about sexual assault around the world. It is being published in five parts of six article each on Mondays and Thursday, beginning Nov. 29, 2021. For links to the published project, click below.