Need to tackle threats to women, which technology brings along

“When you reach [your destination], just send me a message or give me a missed call” - almost every woman going to work or anywhere else gets this instruction from her parents, spouse or relatives at home.

At a time when more and more women spend a considerable time outside their homes, safety becomes a pertinent and constant concern. Are education, employment, mobility and independence necessarily translating into respect and safety for all women in the city?

According to Director-General of Police Letika Saran, Chennai is among the safer cities for women. “The city police have put in certain significant safety measures, in coordination with different industries, including hospitality, telecommunication, banking and information technology.”

The police's monitoring of public places such as theatres, malls, bus terminals, railway stations and hotels through surveillance cameras and CCTV systems is part of the measures, she adds. The 1091 helpline for women receives around 25 calls every day. Most cases are to do with domestic violence and occasionally, women call in to report threats or abuse, say sources.

Do such mechanisms essentially make for a safer environment? Shanti (name changed), a school teacher, engaged in the census enumeration takes along her four-year-old son. “Honestly, I do not feel safe going alone. Even if it is a child, it helps to have someone along,” she adds.

Women say they often encounter subtle and loud messages of threat. K. Pavitra, a college-goer, says: “It is unfair that we cannot wear clothes of our choice because we are worried about unwarranted comments or advances.”

Additional Commissioner of Police (Headquarters) Sanjay Arora says there has been no conspicuous increase in crime against women, which the Department broadly categories as harassment on the streets, at workplace and domestic violence.

When it comes to working women, particularly those who work till late in the evenings, or do night shifts, certain safety measures should be systematised, say experts. The Madras High Court recently upheld an order declaring unconstitutional Section 66 (1) (b) of the Factories Act, provisions of which prohibited the employment of women in any factory between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.

With over 60,000 women working in the ITeS sector and around 35,000 employed in the IT industry in the State alone, companies are also standardising policies.

Many KPOs and BPOs that have done away with night shifts for women say if logistics are managed well, it is possible to have women working only during the day.

NASSCOM officials have repeatedly termed the abolition of night shifts for women a retrograde step. “The foundation of the IT industry is based on equal opportunities, the need is to adopt safer practices and implement them,” says K. Purushottaman, regional director, NASSCOM.

Adopting a ‘no night shift for women' policy could have professional implications, too. “It often affects our appraisal reports and growth markings,” says Sharadha Krishnan, an IT employee.

Though the safety of women travelling during night by company-arranged cabs is quite ensured by many firms, centralised scrutiny of all office vehicles by a GPS system, assisted by police patrol at night is needed, say experts.

“There are rules that ensure that the woman employee is not picked up first and not dropped last during night shifts, and drivers are checked before they set out,” says Ambika J. working in a BPO.

Since many IT companies, of late, discontinued many of their bus services for offices located within city limits, women relying upon public transport feel the safety in railway stations wanting. Not just commuters, but even women ticket checkers feel insecure, particularly at many MRTS stations. “When I asked a group of young men to produce tickets, they immediately threatened to attack me and I had to take the help of an RPF personnel,” recalls a ticket checker at one of MRTS stations.

Safety is not necessarily to do with public places, alone. “Technology brings along several dangers for woman, and they too have to be tackled using technology only,” says Kalyani Narayanan, CEO, easyinsuranceindia.com.

The challenge is to understand and implement policies relevant to the Indian context,” says Anaadhi Srikrishnan, a senior HR executive.

“Companies give ample opportunities for female employees to address the issue, but it depends on the employee to access the proper channels,” says Nira Shravati, who works in an IT major. Vijayalakshmi Rao, CEO, Scope e-Knowledge agrees. “Companies have separate investigation teams that look into matters of sexual harassment, through which women can bypass their regular offenders especially if they are the bosses, for redress.”

In smaller firms, many women employees feel more efforts should be made for policies to be communicated to employees. “Unlike large companies where there are regular self defence workshops and sessions that introduce employees to company policies on sexual harassment and safety, women in small companies are left to figure out things from the company website,” says Anju James, assistant manager in an SME.

Concerns of safety affect female domestic workers largely. In a profession that has no mandates on identity, timing or work designation, many women domestic help say they are victims of various kinds of abuse at work place.

A national policy to protect the welfare of domestic workers should be evolved by the Centre to ensure their safety, says M. Valarmathy, coordinator, National Domestic Workers' Movement. “It is the lack of forums to redress grievances that bothers us,” says Akila Ramesh, a domestic worker in Teynampet.

What they say

Letika Saran, Director-General of Police: “The city police have been working with different organisations, insisting they put in place sound safety measures for all employees, particularly women. Women should also have good security systems in their homes. However, Chennai is largely a safe city for women.”

N. Rajkumar, advocate: “Since 2006, there has been a series of legislation on issues concerning safety of women at workplace. Due to poor awareness and cumbersome process in implementation, these legislation have not helped women much. We also need individual guidelines framed by organisations to punish the offenders.”

Kalyani Narayanan, vice-president, EWiT (Empowering women in IT): It is the responsibility of companies to ensure their women employees feel safe at the workplace. Night shifts are an added responsibility when companies have to take extra precautionary measures by having only pre-verified cab services that are scrutinised when on duty. Women should be personally equipped with tools and techniques to defend themselves.