Until last year, Indians remembered December 16 as Vijay Diwas, a day to commemorate India's military victory over Pakistan in 1971 that led to the liberation of Bangladesh. But now, a Google web search for this date throws up a deluge of references to the murderous gang rape inside a Delhi bus. There is no escaping that ignominy.
In a city dubbed the "rape capital", the December 16 case could have been just another statistic in Delhi Police's crime register. But the unthinkable brutality of the crime triggered mass outrage. More importantly, it underlined the vulnerability of India's emerging neo-urban population. A first generation Dilliwallah, the young physiotherapy student was from a migrant family. Her dream, primarily, was to study and earn and support her hard-working father. Her rape and murder was an attack on that aspiration.
India reacted with justifiable anger and the Union government soon announced legal reforms: stricter penalties (even death in most brutal cases), better-defined laws on sexual assaults assault, trial in fast-court cases for all rape cases and fixing police's responsibility in registration and investigation of such cases.
As a result, women who suffer assault can now press appropriate charges that were earlier euphemistically dismissed as eve-teasing and outraging the modesty of women. In Delhi, reported cases of rapes and molestations have seen a jump of 270% as compared with last year.
But even as more women and families of victims of child abuse are coming out and seeking redressal by law, mere registration of cases cannot ensure justice. Women's safety, indeed safety of all citizens, is a matter of routine governance and cannot depend on the intensity or frailty of street protests. Gender-based violence, to quote the Justice Verma report on legal reforms, "that cannot be overcome by laws has to be overcome by administration."
Failure of governance and policing is to be blamed for any meltdown of the rule of law that encourages violent behaviour, particularly against women. In the absence of public transport in Delhi, she is forced to take a bus without permit, manned by drunkards. In the absence of effective policing in Mumbai, she is an easy target for serial offenders inside an abandoned mill in the heart of the city.
This is bad news for almost 30% of India that lives in cities and towns. Rapid urbanisation is both an opportunity and a challenge. It gives women greater mobility, access to better education and employment opportunities. It also exposes her to hazards of sexual harassment in professional and public spaces.
A 2010 survey by Jagori as part of United Nations Safe Cities Initiative found roads (50%) and public transport (39%) most unsafe public spaces for women in Delhi. "A common strategy against harassment (in Delhi) was to simply keep girls and women at home," said Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women and former president of Chile, quoting the report.
Worse are the blind spots in our slums and margins - places where abuses are not easily seen and complaints rarely heard. A large number of homeless and destitute women do not count at all. Pavement dwellers are probably the biggest victims of sexual abuse although there is no reliable data because few care about this invisible population.
Post December 16, cops put up barriers on arterial roads in Delhi but long, dark stretches remain unmanned. There may be more night buses now but their coverage and frequency remain unreliable. The government insists that employers must offer women who work after 8 pm a drop-home facility but only a handful of big organisations comply.
The majority of Delhi's working women, employed in malls, restaurants, beauty parlours, small establishments and our homes, do not even know that such a rule exists. They risk their safety every day, waiting for buses that never arrive on time or sharing a ride in an eight-seater, or just walking home in dark alleys because the administration never bothered to install a streetlight in her modest neighbourhood.
Delhi police may have compulsions for devoting an oddly disproportionate bulk of resources to VIP zones and upper middle-class neighbourhoods. But if the administration is serious about women's safety, it must ensure effective vigil in areas that have been recording the maximum number of cases for decades. It must provide dependable public services and institutions the absence of which makes women vulnerable.
Failing to do so will only further restrict women's rights to movement, education and work. Much more than a gender issue, this will frustrate India's economic aspirations. What nation building can we talk about if nearly half of our population is too scared to step out and live their life, let alone their dream?