Give us this day a harassment free commute
Illustration: Samia Singh
Last week, I curated the @WeAreMumbai twitter account. Given that it was International Women’s Day on 8 March, I asked the residents of Mumbai, or at least those who followed the @WeAreMumbai account, what they would like to see changed in the city to make commuting and public spaces more accessible and convenient for women. Among the many suggestions that cropped up, the most notable were the demand for more ladies special trains, buses and more compartments in local trains reserved for women. Interestingly, when I asked which areas of the city women found safe to walk, jog, run in, the answers were few and far between. I asked the women if they used the skywalks and subways, and the answers from those who used the sky walks far outnumbered the answers in the negative from those who didn’t. Women preferred to be on the road, rather than enter a subway late at night even if it meant walking a great distance to be able to cross a road, or access a railway station. They took the second class ladies compartment which is always reserved for ladies and not the one that changes to general at a fixed time, because the men jump in much before the time of changing to general and they’ve had unpleasant experiences of being groped and verbally harassed.
For most women, even the every day commute to work was replete with groping, molestation, street sexual harassment, and it was a matter of fact every day battle they needed to deal with if they needed to get out to schools, colleges and to work Most women accept that street sexual harassment was part and parcel of the perils of urban living. This sad reality affects a woman’s ability to move about in a city freely, to be an equal participant in the workspace; it limits their ability to navigate a city without fear of being at risk of harassment, molestation or worse. It makes half the population of a city rush through their time out in public spaces simply because of their gender.
The fact remains that commuting in our cities was, is and seems to remain fraught with danger for women. In Delhi, on December 16, 2012, a 23 year old medical intern boarded a private bus, along with a male friend, because one of those in the bus called for passengers saying it was going towards their destination. She was then gang raped so brutally that she eventually passed away from the injuries suffered despite the best medical efforts, that the medical details that emerged horrified the nation. The incident led to weeks of concerted protests by enraged citizens, both men and women, young and old, leading to a committee being set up to re-look at our gender violence laws.
As recently as last week, a minor was gang raped in an auto after she left from a mall at Ghaziabad. The girl took a shared auto at around 8 pm in the night, the auto unfortunately had been stolen and the three men in it were around for a joyride. “The girl was told the two men sitting in the back were passengers. ‘Shared autos’ are a common practice here, partly because they make commuting cheaper, and because there’s a paucity of public transport. The auto drove through multiple police check points for a journey that lasted more than two hours on Saturday night. The men in the back pinned the girl down and gagged her, preventing her from shouting for help, according to the police. When the men had raped the teenager in a secluded area near a major highway, they threw her onto the road. But not before robbing her of her cash and cellphone.” Passersby who found her lying bleeding on the highway, took her to the police station, interestingly, she was not spotted by the police patrols in the area.
Transport and commuting in our cities is a matter of concern. In most metropolises we have women only fleet taxi services like Forshe, Vira Cabs and Priyadarshini, but these are not affordable or practical for the regular, every day commute for most women. Most women take local trains, the metro, auto rickshaws, sharing autos and public buses in their daily commute, often taking two or more of these modes given distances in our cities of the residential areas from commercial districts. Some years ago, the Delhi based NGO Jagori conducted a study on women’s safety in public spaces in the city. The survey found that 80 percent of the 500 female respondents had faced sexual harassment in buses and other public transport. Jagori has also initiated a Safe Delhi campaign where they look at how the city can be made safer for its more vulnerable residents, specifically women and the elderly. Another study conducted by Jagori Delhi in collaboration with UN Women in 2009, in two cities of Kerala – Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode, surveyed over 1500 men and women across both cities. According to Rejitha G, Project Coordinator for Kerala for the Safe City Initiative, “The study brought to the forefront some of the critical issues of women’s safety in public spaces. 99 percent of the women felt that the city was not safe due to lack of street lights and high raised walls of residential houses on either side of the roads. Harassment in public transport was identified as the major problem. Others included ‘eve-teasing’, sexual remarks and jokes in bus stops and roads, exhibitionism, staring, and attempting to take photos through mobile cameras. In Kozhikode, 53 percent of the women respondents reported that the incidents took place during day time and 24 percent reported incidents after dark. The study also revealed that women hardly speak about this kind of harassment. Only 5-7 percent of women reported the incident to the police, while 19 percent did nothing when they were sexually harassed. This refers to the incidents that occurred in the last one year before the study. A majority of women responded by not stepping out after dark – 69 percent women said that they avoided going to secluded places and 67 percent avoided going out alone after dark.”
On Twitter, Blank Noise, a volunteer driven collective that works to change attitudes towards street sexual harassment, recently did a twitterthon where they asked tweeters to take a Safe City Pledge, where they stated what they would do to make our cities safer. The most notable fact was the constant echo in the pledges about reclaiming the cities for women, getting back the freedom to move around after dark. Among the more poignant pledges was this one, “I will ask my daughter to go out and play. Play football. Jog. Unlearn warnings.” While reclaiming the city after dark for women might seem ambitious right now, but it is important that women realise that they have as much right to be out in the streets of the city they live in, without fear, as men do and take for granted.
UN Women has launched the Safe Cities Global initiative which partners with municipal governments, local communities and organisations to make global cities safer for women, the initiative now covers over 20 cities world wide and is growing. One of the cities covered under this initiative is Delhi. To quote Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women and former president of Chile, “A diagnostic study in New Delhi, for instance, revealed that a common strategy against harassment was to simply keep girls and women at home. One girl explained: “If we tell our parents about boys harassing us, they would blame us only and say that it is our fault … Our parents might even stop us going out of the house.” Findings like this spur action, since keeping women and girls home is not a solution. Residents organised community collectives to build awareness, report crimes, and work with authorities to improve public safety and justice.” UN Women is also partnering with Microsoft to find ways to use mobile technology to stop sexual harassment and violence in public spaces.
Efforts to effect changes are definitely underway. The Supreme Court has directed that a victim of sexual harassment in a public service vehicle has the right to take the vehicle to the nearest police station and give the information about the incident to the police. If the crew does not do this, the permit to ply the vehicle can be cancelled. Post the Delhi Gang Rape, the government is looking at making transport more convenient for women. According to news reports, the Urban Development Ministry has asked 63 cities, with a population of more than one lakh, to run women-only buses on busy routes. If not buses, then the state governments are urged to run smaller transport vehicles on these routes with the emphasis on frequency.
An interesting initiative from the Delhi Transport Department looks at bringing in an autorickshaw fleet, driven only by women. Special women only buses have been launched in UP on International Women’s Day, painted appropriately pink, but operational unfortunately only till 5.30pm, which quite defeats the purpose of being an option for women who work and need safe modes of transport post 8 pm.
In Mumbai, which has had ladies special trains for over a decade now, ladies special buses starting from the railway stations are thoughtfully timed keeping in mind the timings of the ladies special trains at certain main railway stations. There are many who would say segregating men and women in mass transport is not the answer to stop street sexual harassment, but the fact remains that is the most effective way right now to ensure that women don’t get sexually harassed at least for that part of their commute while they’re in these women’s only modes of transport. Safety of women on their daily commute is not just limited to the actual mode of transportation, every point on the route must be safe, from the road to reach the railway station being well lit, the railway platform with adequate police patrolling, parking lots well lit and with security, adequate CCTVs placed at strategic positions in public spaces to help identify perpetrators in the event of a crime.
Our cities haven’t been planned keeping safety and convenience in mind. Access to and comfort with mass transit is one of the key rights of a woman, and it is not just the responsibility of the government to provide it, but also that of the residents to be more proactive and push for changes in order to get the security they deserve. Most importantly, gender sensitisation efforts in communities are a must, community outreach efforts across all media—mass media, print media, social media and even via popular culture like cinema are essential. We are seeing efforts in this direction, with mainstream publications like The Times Of India and men’s brands like Gillette coming out with well meaning campaigns to change attitudes towards women, to encourage onlookers to step in if they witness street sexual harassment. We could put all the safety measures in place to keep women safe from harassment and sexual assault on their daily commute, but unless mindsets that view women as mere sexual objects don’t change, little else will.