A Snapchat gimmick has become a powerful tool for sexual assault survivors in India

Women in India are sharing their stories of sexual abuse under the shield of Snapchat filters.
Women in India are sharing their stories of sexual abuse under the shield of Snapchat filters.
Image: Facebook video screenshot
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Earlier this summer, survivors of rape and sexual abuse in India gathered together with advocates to climb 1,000 steps up Chamundi Hill in Mysuru. The Climb Against Sexual Abuse, an international movement that is planning similar events at Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest, was meant to be a metaphor for overcoming sexual abuse, Yusef Omar, the mobile editor for the Hindustan Times, said in a Facebook video.

And indeed, it’s an uphill battle, especially in India, where at least 92 women are raped every day. Social stigmas, outdated laws, and a woefully inadequate healthcare system leave many survivors feeling victimized a second time after they tell of their ordeals. And a flurry of media attention following several high-profile rapes, combined with the attention-seeking behavior of politicians looking to capitalize on the public outcry, has left some women choosing to keep quiet. Even when survivors speak out, it’s difficult to tell their stories because journalists are prevented by law from reporting the identity of rape victims.

That’s why Omar came up with the idea of using Snapchat filters to obscure survivors’ identities. He wanted to give abused women a platform where they could tell their stories in their own words, while preserving their sense of humanity for viewers.

“Normally on broadcast you blur out their face or silhouette them into the background; I wanted to capture their facial expressions,” Omar said in his Facebook video. “Most importantly you could still see their eyes, and the eyes are often said to be the window to the soul.”

Omar started handing young women a mobile phone, telling them to choose one of Snapchat’s face-mapping filters to hide their identities. It might seem counterintuitive to put the stories of rape survivors on social media, but his method offers women with the anonymity they need to open up about their harrowing experiences. Soon, women who had previously been silenced started talking.

“Someone kidnapped me from Hyberdad to Mysore and locked me in a room,” one young woman said, masked as a fire-breathing dragon. “They tortured me at home and never let me go out.”

Her choice of filter was the one most of the women chose, which Omar called one of the most interesting parts of the project.

The idea has earned Omar international praise:

Omar plans to use Snapchat to tell the stories of sexual abuse survivors when he attends the Climb Against Sexual Abuse at Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa this December.