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:
'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:
WOMEN SHOULD STAND UP FOR THEMSELVES:
Mukesh Kumar Mishra)