Every unpunished gender crime makes women fear for the worst in our cities
To conclude the “Wake up, Delhi” series last week, HT got two college students, a security guard and a mother to interact with a panel comprising a senior police officer, the city women commission chief and a gender expert on the issue of safety.
While enough statistical evidence was doled out to establish that the reporting and recording of sexual crime had increased since the change in laws after the 2012 December 16 gang rape case, there were only anecdotes on offer to assess if women felt any safer in the city.
The security guard said she was routinely harassed on public buses. One student expressed helplessness when a bunch of men barged into the women’s compartment on the Metro. Another, a first-year outstation student, was surprised that a campus like Delhi University’s was so deserted and bereft of police presence after sundown. The mother worried for her young working daughter, wondering how men raped, molested and harassed girls with impunity. “Why is there no fear?” was her question to the police officer.
Clearly, Delhi’s women feel afraid. And it is strange what this fear can do. A senior colleague who grew up in Delhi told me how even now while walking on the streets, she never makes eye contact with a stranger. “What if he made a lewd gesture?” Having grown up in Delhi myself, I can tell this is not paranoia.
This fear is so deep-seated in us that while travelling in some of the safest cities in the world, I have been wary of taking public transport or walking alone at night. This anxiety of “what if” is always working on our minds.
Like everywhere else, harassment of women in Delhi varies in degree from obscene calls and lewd gestures to stalking, groping or molestation. While successive surveys have showed that public transport, unlit bus stops, subways and streets were Delhi’s most unsafe spaces, the more dangerous attacks happen not necessarily because a woman walked into a dark alley. Even busy market places or packed public vehicles are not necessarily safe.
It is not possible for women to report every single case of harassment to police. Besides, to paraphrase American politician Carrie P Meek, we can’t arrest our way to safety and security. Crime against women has to be tackled in the wider matrix of city planning, gender expert Kalpana Viswanath argued.
Over one-third of Delhi’s nearly eight lakh working women use public transport. An equally big number walk to work, shop for daily needs, or pick and drop their children to school or the bus stop. Yet, harassment and violence in public places and transport has remained a neglected issue despite the furore over women security in Delhi since the December 16 case.
In spite of sustained civic outrage, people in crowded places often remain passive onlookers when a woman needs help. We can keep working towards a society that is less tolerant of gender crime. For now though, technology seems to be the best hope. The administration must ensure that CCTV cameras are installed in all public buses. And then extend the coverage to bus stops, road crossings, car parks and market places.
In the long run though, we must invest in intelligent infrastructure and administration to make the city safer. For example, in 2012, the Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Planning and Engineering Centre formulated a set of guidelines on making Delhi safe for women.
Designating spaces for hawkers as “eyes on the street” in deserted arterial roads such as Dwarka, Dhaula Kuan and NH-8 and next to bus stops, improving bus frequency with specific time schedules, slowing down vehicles on signal free roads during night hours, and making GPS mandatory for auto-rickshaws and taxis were among its many recommendations. Many of these await follow-up action.
While we rightly focus on fighting rape, we can’t brush aside routine harassment as minor irritants. A harasser on street or a groper in a bus may or may not eventually become a rapist. But his impunity surely helps develop a culture of rape.