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December 16 gangrape: Five years on, why the streets don’t belong equally to women

Every woman has a story, the man who ‘accidentally’ touches her in the metro, the schoolboys who chase her in the park for sport, the masturbating pervert late at night on the bus. We learn to ignore it – rule #1 of the street: never, ever make eye contact – but sometimes it spills over into a serious crime. And, always it’s our fault.

columns Updated: Dec 16, 2017 09:42 IST
Nirbhaya,Jyoti Singh,5 years nirbhaya
Delhi University students pay tribute on the second anniversary of the December 16 rape case, New Delhi(Ajay Aggarwal/ Hindustan Times)

An Indian woman who has never had to deal with molestation on public transportation and in open spaces is a rare species. For too many of us, commuting to school, college and work is an everyday hazard.

This year began with the horrors of the mass assault of women on New Year’s eve on the streets of Bengaluru. To understand just how much things had changed – or hadn’t – became clear when at year end, a 17-year-old actress took to social media to describe her ordeal during a Delhi-Mumbai flight.

An investigation is on, but regardless of the findings, the incident has brought to light the ugly reality of sexual assault in public spaces.

Every woman has a story; the man who ‘accidentally’ touches her in the metro, the schoolboys who chase her in the park for sport, the masturbating pervert late at night on the bus. We learn to ignore it -- rule #1 of the street: never make eye contact – but sometimes it spills over into a serious crime. And, always it’s our fault.

In Chandigarh last month, a woman returning to her PG accommodation after her stenography class is raped by three men after she gets into a shared auto rickshaw. So careless, says Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament Kirron Kher and thousands agree on social media. Ah, if only every woman had the luxury of her own car – but wait, what do we do about the rapes and general creepiness of Uber drivers?

We talk of ‘smart’ cities, not inclusive ones. Open spaces in our cities remain male domains, intractably hostile to women. When will we begin talking about the right of women as equal citizens? When do we ask: why doesn’t the street belong equally to us?

Apart from the implications on our constitutional right to live as equitable citizens, there is a cost to our economic participation. The World Bank finds that 19.6 million Indian women fell off the employment map in just 10 years up till 2011. What role did the lack of safe transportation have on this alarming decline?

Earlier this year, a steel factory in Haryana’s Jhajjar district hired women for the first time. Some quit. Why, I asked one of them. She explained, when she had signed up it was summer. By November, the days became shorter and by the time the bus dropped near her village, still a couple of kilometers away, it was dark and too dangerous for her to walk home alone.

If women aren’t safe on the roads and in public transport, how can they be expected to participate in the economic life of India?

Five years ago on this day, a young physiotherapy student was returning home from watching a movie at a mall. Accompanied by a male friend, the young woman was gang-raped in a bus, then thrown off to die.

Are we a better nation for girls and women since? I think the answer is depressingly obvious.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender

Twitter: @namitabhandare

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 15, 2017 17:19 IST