Delhi women too scared of city to step out and work

The latest findings of Census 2011, a decadal count of people and their quality of life, have thrown up some paradoxical trends on Delhi. Shivani Singh writes.

columns Updated: Jun 17, 2013 00:32 IST

The latest findings of Census 2011, a decadal count of people and their quality of life, have thrown up some paradoxical trends on Delhi.

The report, released last week, showed that Delhi’s sex ratio has improved from 821 women per 1,000 men in 2001 to 868 in 2011. It is the best we have had since 1901. Women are more literate —from 74.7% in 2001 to 80.8 % in 2011. They are also having fewer children. The total fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime -- has declined from 2.2 in 1999 to 1.8 in 2011.

But all this does not add up when it comes to women’s participation in the city’s workforce. Only one in 10 women in Delhi is employed. The city has 78 lakh women but only 10.58% of them go out to work. This is way below the national average of 25.5%. Even Jharkhand (29.1%) and Bihar (19.1%)—perceived as backward in comparison —have higher figures to show.

So why would Delhi’s women, who now have a better literacy record and fewer children, not chose to work? There could be something in the way we perceive women employment in our society. Her contribution to the family income is often undervalued and undercounted. For instance, a street vendor who works at her husband’s food stall is often seen as a helping hand and not a worker who gets paid for her labour. In many families, even economically affluent ones, a woman going out to work is considered an admission that the male members are not earning enough. These are true for most Indian societies.

The most common refrain we hear from young women (and their families) in Delhi is that they don’t go out to work because the city is too unsafe to negotiate on their own. The experience of many thousands who do venture out does little to change that perception.

A 2010 survey by Jagori as part of United Nations Safe Cities Initiative found roads (50%) and public transport (39%) the most unsafe public spaces for women in Delhi. “A common strategy against harassment (in Delhi) was to simply keep girls and women at home,” Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women and former president of Chile, said quoting the report.

Harassment and violence in public places has remained a neglected issue despite the furore over security of women in Delhi following the gang rape of a physiotherapy student last December. Following protests, the government was forced to announce safety measures. But on the ground, Delhi still remains a hostile terrain.

Cops have put up barriers on prime roads, but long, dark stretches still remain unpatrolled. There may be more night buses, but their frequency is still irregular. The government insists that employers must offer women who work after 8 pm a drop-home facility but only a handful of organisations oblige. 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.

In the absence of any support system, they risk their security every day, waiting for buses that never arrive on time or sharing a ride in an eight-seater Grameen Seva with drunkards and ruffians, or just walking home in dark alleys since the administration never bothered to install a streetlight in their working class neighbourhood.

It is not surprising that many choose to drop out from the employment map.

By not addressing the woman’s security concern, our policymakers are restricting her rights to movement, education and work. No amount of infrastructure will ever make Delhi a world-class city as long as nearly half its population remains too scared to step out.

First Published: Jun 17, 2013 00:30 IST