In November last year, a 14-year-old girl in Mumbai committed suicide after being harassed by a 16-year-old on social media. The girl's family alleged that the boy posted obscene messages on her page. Though the incident grabbed attention as an instance of virtual harassment leading to tragic consequences, cases of women committing suicide or being killed after suffering sexual assault in the 'real' world are, unfortunately, common in India.
It is relatively rare for an Indian woman to fight back to defend herself or in support of another victim. That's possibly why, two years after she was brutally raped and succumbed to her injuries at a Singapore hospital, the world continues to remembers the December 16 gang rape victim as a "brave heart" who refused to be cowed down by her assaulters. She displayed courage and spoke up against her attackers from her hospital bed and an outraged nation came out in support.
The gruesome incident led to some action: Online platforms like India Against Rape were set up and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act was passed in 2013. The Act provides for a life term and even a death sentence for rape convicts, besides stringent punishment for offences like acid attacks, stalking and voyeurism. Whether all this has managed to make women safer in public spaces is another matter. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2013 data, reported cases of crime against women saw a 26.7 per cent increase in 2013 as compared to 2012.
The incidence of rape saw an increase of 35.2 per cent in 2013 over 2012. While many would like to believe that the figures are a result of increased reporting of the crime, it is certainly true that women continue to face the threat of assault. Earlier this year, a tribal girl was allegedly raped on the orders of a village kangaroo court in West Bengal. She was punished for being in a relationship with a man who did not belong to her community.
Then, two girls in Uttar Pradesh's Badaun district were allegedly raped and murdered. Though the CBI now refutes the allegations. Next, a six-year-old was raped at a Bangalore school, and days before the second anniversary of the December 16 rape incident, came the rape of a young professional by an Uber cab driver. "Women are not safe in public spaces. It is a national shame," says Lalitha Kumaramangalam, chairperson, National Commission for Women (NCW). "And when something is done as a temporary solution, the banning of Uber cabs, for example, it is seen as kneejerk. But, as has been seen, unless we can impose punitive damages on cab operators, they do not take responsibility for quality of services," she adds.
The NCW chairperson says the Commission is in talks with the transport department to create an app dedicated to making women safer in public spaces. "It is too early to go into details but state governments and the police will be involved in operating the app. We are also looking at ways of tracking buses, autos and other public transport systems through GPS," says Kumaramangalam. Policies, whether pushed by the government or the private sector, have to take women's safety into consideration.
"Make it mandatory for all companies to have 50 per cent women drivers failing which they would lose their license to ply. One has to accept that women are in the public space; we take public transport. Catering to women does not end with allocating one seat or compartment for women in the Metro. The customer service industry too has to be trained to cater to the right of access to public transport of women as well. We have to think of out-of-the-box solutions to the problem," says lawyer Naina Kapur.
Meanwhile, women seem less willing to wait for the system to make the world a safer place for them. Not only are they coming out to report incidents of crime against them and actively helping the police to nab culprits - the Uber cab rape survivor took pictures of her assaulter to help the police identify him - they are also hitting out at abusers verbally and physically. The motives of the Rohtak sisters in beating up the three youths who allegedly misbehaved with them on a bus, are being questioned but most people are also expressing admiration at the courage of the girls. "Women and girls have to be taught that they are not weaker than men. They shouldn't be made to feel like victims. Mandatory self defence classes for girls will go a long way in achieving this," says Puja Trisal of Smile Foundation, a community intervention organisation.
The lewd comment or the light brush against the body are no longer being ignored. And an increasing number are finally realising that shame and punishment should be reserved for the offender not the victim.
I FELT I NEEDED TO BREAK THE SILENCE:
Back in 2010 Maitreyee Avachat, then 20, was trying to get home from college. She finally managed to scramble onto a packed bus. Four years on, she still remembers every detail of that journey. She felt a young man behind her brushing his hands against her buttocks and back. "Initially, I thought it was an accident. The bus was crowded," she says. Soon, it became obvious that the groping was deliberate. Avachat turned and sternly told the man to stop touching her. When he didn't Avachat says she realised she could continue to feel helpless or she could fight back.
"I decided that I needed to break the silence," she says. She turned and yelled at the man and told her co-passengers and the conductor that he was misbehaving. "I think he was shocked that I had mustered the courage to do this," says Avachat. A few men then roughed the fellow up and pushed him out of the bus at the next stop. "It was only after I got home that I realised I should have dragged him to the police," says Avachat. She was quicker to react a few months ago, when she heard a man making graphic lewd comments about a young woman waiting at her bus stop. "I shouted, loud enough for others to hear, telling him to behave himself. Before I could try and call the police, the man had run away."
'I ATTACKED HIM WITH A BLADE AND SPADE'
When Amina Bibi, (name changed), a house wife from a remote village in Bankura district, in West Bengal, dared to attack the person, who tried to rape her, she did not think her act of self defence would change her life. Ainuddin Dalal, the alleged assaulter, was an acquaintance of her husband and other members of her family. On 26 September, 2012, when Amina was alone at home, Ainuddin, a resident of nearby Mallikdangaa village, entered the house and tried to rape her. Amina picked up a blade that happened to be at arm's length and hit out at the man, wounding his private parts. "Then I found a spade and attacked him with that. When I saw him bleeding, I started shouting and the neighbours came over," she recalls.
Her act of bravery did turn many of the villagers against her for some time. The women, though, remained supportive. "I am thankful to them for not turning away from me," she says. Over time, Amina has become something of a role model in the neighbourhood. "Nothing can be better than women learning to save themselves in such a situation. We are also alert and take immediate steps when we get complaints of crime against women. We also advise them on how best to protect themselves," says Mukesh Kumar, superintendent of police, Bankura. Those close to Ainuddin, however, claim he had only gone to Amina's house to ask for the money that her husband owed him.
A VICTIM FACES REPEATED HARASSMENT:
Victims of sexual harassment are often blamed for having behaved seductively and of having brought the attack upon themselves, says Malayalam poet Jayageetha, who took on two train ticket examiners, who misbehaved with her. While travelling in the first-class compartment of a super-fast train she was approached by the two men. When they saw that there weren't many travellers around, one of them asked her to join them in another compartment. When she refused, they allegedly abused her. Jayageetha filed a complaint against the men and sought in-camera proceedings.
"Our system is such that the victim faces repeated harassment. When a woman approaches a competent authority, the first question she is asked is whether she's ready to face the consequences. This forces many to retract and to suffer silently," she says, adding that she knew many victims who withdrew their complaint as a result. "Some find eternal pleasure in listening to the accounts of harassment. So a victim is often asked uncomfortable questions," she says. Jayageetha feels stringent laws will remain only on paper unless society changes its attitude towards women. "When people talk about self defence for women I wonder what is the use of
treating a disease when you ignore the root cause. Every family needs to ensure that they respect women," she says.
WOMEN SHOULD STAND UP FOR THEMSELVES:
Vandana Mishra, 27, is a government employee in Patna. What sets her apart from many around her is her determination to not endure harassment. Not only did Mishra hit out at a man, who behaved inappropriately with her friend during this year's Durga Puja festival celebrations, she also says she wouldn't hesitate to thrash anyone who dares try a similar thing. "On October 1, I had gone to Meena Bazar in Patna with my husband. My sister and her friend Priya (name changed) were also with us," she says. Mishra recalls that the area was crowded. "Priya was walking in front of me, when I saw a young man coming close to her and passing lewd comments. He even put his hand on her shoulder. As I was walking behind her, he did not notice me. My husband was some distance away," she says.
An angry Mishra immediately hit out. "I caught hold of the youth and started beating him up in full public view. I assaulted him with slippers. Initially, he tried to resist but I kept hitting him. Some of the passers-by also joined me after a while," recalls Vandana. Finally, the youth apologised for his behaviour and begged to be let off. "He fell at my feet and was crying for mercy. I did not report the matter to the police, but I think I taught him a lesson for life," she says. After returning home, Vandana narrated the incident to her family. "My husband felt I should have avoided beating him, but I think women should stand up for themselves," she says.
Mukesh Kumar Mishra)