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Metro Matters: 5 years after December 16 gang rape, safety still a privilege in Delhi

In Delhi, almost every woman is a potential target of obscene remarks, lewd gestures, stalking, groping or molestation. A city cannot be made safer for women unless they are made equal partners in decision-making

delhi Updated: Dec 18, 2017 12:20 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
December 16 gangrape,December 16,Sexual assault
Delhi’s slums and margins are its worst blind spots where abuses are not easily seen and complaints rarely heard.(AFP/Getty Images)

Has Delhi become any safer for women since December 16, 2012, is a question often asked, especially around the anniversary of that fateful day when a young paramedic student was gangraped with unimaginable brutality.

While the jury is still out on the safety perception of Delhi, which is often tagged as the ‘rape capital’ of India, a few things have indeed changed here in the last five years.

For one, sufferers and their families are coming out in increasing numbers to lodge complaints and demand justice. Thanks to legal reforms that followed the fatal gang rape, women who suffer harassment can now press appropriate charges that were earlier euphemistically dismissed as eve-teasing or outraging the modesty.

Delhi has also taken the issue of women’s safety outside seminar halls and TV studios to dinner tables. It is part of the mass discourse, something even the political class have found difficult to ignore. Perhaps that is why promises of women’s safety have figured prominently in election manifestos of all political parties that have contested polls in Delhi since 2012.

However, judicial remedies or police reforms, though absolutely necessary, are mostly curative, rather than being preventive. The massive spike in reported sex crime — especially molestation (up by 573%) and harassment (up by 441%) — since 2012 shows that public places, where these are most likely to occur, have not become any safer for women.

In Delhi, almost every woman is a potential target of obscene remarks, lewd gestures, stalking, groping or molestation. They are fearful not just on empty buses and metro coaches, at unlit bus stops, subways and streets, but even in busy marketplaces and on packed public vehicles.

This fear can do a lot of damage. A survey by Cornell University and Hollaback, a US-based women safety forum, of 23 countries across the world found that the initial emotion expressed by 72% of those subjected to street harassment was anger. But it soon translated into anxiety and fear of places where such incidents happened.

Physical acts like groping led to depression and low self-esteem. Many women started avoiding specific areas, altered the way they dressed, and avoided social outings or stopped going out at all. If a similar investigation was conducted in Delhi, the narratives would not be very different.

A city cannot be made inclusive of women’s needs unless women are equal partners in decision-making. Consultations on gender planning and budgeting must now go beyond mere engagements with civil society groups.

Delhi could make a beginning by hearing out what its women want. Although a step has been made by the launch of crowd-sourced safety audits of unsafe spots in the city, we must formalise a system whereby dedicated surveys are conducted to map gender violence. The data then can help drawing up actionable plans.

In doing so, we have to ensure that no voice goes under the radar. Delhi’s slums and margins are its worst blind spots where abuses are not easily seen and complaints rarely heard. The same is true for thousands of female street vendors, women employed in informal setups, which offer no safety net, no home drops late evenings, and no committees to tackle harassment at workplace.

As a group, school and college girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual offences because of their age and inexperience in navigating the city. But no educational institution has ever tried to find out the extent of their problems. We need to ensure the comfort and confidence our young ones require to find their voice.

According to the 2011 census, 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 at school or bus stop. Women’s right to mobility is a human rights issue.

Ensuring safety in public places and providing dependable public services and institutions are the responsibilities of every government. Let’s remember that even the privileged, and there are many in the capital, who usually commute in the safety of private vehicles need to use public spaces every once in a while.

Making a city safer for women does not require marathon debates in Parliament and assemblies. Our elected leaders need to focus on governance issues, which directly impact half the electorate. Safety is not a privilege to be handed out. It’s our right.

First Published: Dec 18, 2017 07:58 IST