Flower crowns, puppy dog ears and face swaps are beloved mainstays of Snapchat, but the ephemeral image-based platform has a whole lot more to offer. Specifically, in India, Snapchat is being used to give women and girls a safe, anonymous space in which to tell their stories of sexual assault and abuse.
Rape and sexual abuse are still highly incendiary subjects in India, especially in communities policed by unelected, male-dominated clan councils, where a culture of victim-blaming often leads to further acts of violence against women. The Washington Post’s Mauje Jawalwadi writes that, despite the introduction of new laws intended to make it easier for women to report rape, “the road to the police station is still a long one.”
While Snapchat might not be familiar to all young women in India (where mobile data can be pricey), taking a selfie is second nature, and so journalist Yusuf Omar decided that a visual app offered a simple, barrier-less way for victims to tell their own stories.
Rather than put survivors under the pressure of being interviewed, Omar handed over his own device, and let them record their stories in private, in their own time. The phone was logged into his Snapchat account, sidestepping the legal issue of disclosing the identities of rape survivors. And the Snapchat filters functioned as masks, securing their anonymity.
Omar, who is mobile editor at the Hindustan Times, has found that far from being a “seemingly frivolous platform,” Snapchat has become a de facto storytelling tool for NGOs and newspapers alike, and that it can actually provide an additional, much-needed layer of protection.
“Increasingly, citizen journalists with smartphones are broadcasting live to Facebook or Periscope when witnessing human rights violations and police brutality,” he says. “Going ‘live’ means authorities can’t easily delete phone footage or destroy evidence. Snapchat isn’t live, but it’s a few seconds away from it.”
In December, Omar plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro alongside rape survivors from all over the world. Their journey will be documented on Snapchat, of course, which Omar believes has only just begun to discover the potential of face-mapping and filters. “In the future I see survivors being able to design their own masks and determine how they want to be represented,” he says.