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It's not just the police's job

The government must address the issue of women's safety in a holistic manner. Kalpana Viswanath writes.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2012 21:03 IST

The recent gangrape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi highlights the fact that the safety of women cannot be ensured unless a wider set of actors accept that they have a role in creating a more equal and safe society. While there have been several assaults in the past years, this surge of public anger around this case must serve as a turning point for our response to any form of sexual violence.

While the immediate reaction of many has been to demand better policing and stringent punishment for the accused, this can only be part of the response. We know that there is no magic bullet that can end such violence against women. We need to address the issues of policing and legislation as well as the role that families and communities can play to stop such violence. Moreover, our cities need to be designed, planned and governed in ways that are inclusive and safe for all. So addressing violence against women cannot be seen only as the responsibility of the police or a particular ministry. It has to get onto the agenda of all stakeholders such as the departments of urban planning, transport, education and health. Responding to violence is one part of the strategy; equally important is the need to create conditions of safety and security which can prevent such crimes.

An interesting slogan in the recent campaign - 'Don't tell us how to dress, tell your sons not to rape' - is significant, as it directs the discourse towards men and masculinity. Family and education must be an important space of intervention. In the long term, attitudes and culture must be challenged and changed. For this, boys need new role models and we need to provide healthy and safe spaces for boys and girls to interact with each other. This also requires a campaign that spreads the message that violence against women is unacceptable. In Bogota, Colombia, for example, such slogans appear on stickers, buttons, posters and electricity bills.

It is important to address the problem in a holistic - and not in a piecemeal - manner. The women-friendly initiatives in Seoul, which was launched in 2009, addresses public infrastructure, public transport, housing for women, improving women's representation in the government along with improving systems to address violence. Another initiative is the Harassmap from Cairo, a city known for high levels of violence against women in public spaces. It is a platform for women to send information about incidences of sexual harassment in order to generate awareness and provide people with a system to talk about the issue without going to the police. After all, reported crime is only a small percentage of the actual violence on our streets.

Another key strategy must be related to involving people in the process of creating safety. Thus, while police patrolling is important, it is also necessary to have vigilance at neighbourhood and community levels. In Argentina, urban guards have been trained to respond to sexual harassment. Community policing initiatives exist in many countries in Africa where the community and the police work in partnership to ensure immediate and adequate response.

In the wake of the anger against the recent rape, it is but natural to look for a quick solution to ensure that such incidents don't recur. While effective implementation of the law will go a long way towards reinstating the confidence of the people in the police and the legal system, it must be accompanied by a process that addresses deep inequalities and discrimination which exist at every level of our society, starting with our families.

Kalpana Viswanath works on issues of women's safety and rights in cities
The views expressed by the author are personal