A recent survey reveals that women don't feel safe anymore even in Mumbai, a city where women have been part of the public spaces for a much longer time.

In October, Mumbaikars woke up rather rudely to a reality that millions of women living in that great city have to live with every day — that of sexual harassment in the public space. The incident that caught media attention took place outside a restaurant in suburban Mumbai. A group of friends, men and women, stepped outside the restaurant. When one of the young men objected to lewd remarks being directed at a woman in their group by four men who were hanging around, it first appeared that the matter would end there. Instead, these four returned with reinforcements, set upon the men in the group, killed one, Keenan Santos, on the spot and grievously wounded another, Reuben Fernandes. The latter died in hospital.

The incident shocked the city. Was it safe no longer for women to go out even with men friends? Was it unwise for men to intervene if women are harassed? And why did none of the people who stood by and watched intervene or call the police? Could this really be happening in Mumbai, a city where women feel safer than they do in practically any other city in the country?

Shocking findings

A recent survey initiated by the women's resource group Akshara in Mumbai along with Hindustan Times and market research organisation Cfore has put some concrete numbers behind this unfortunate but emerging reality in the city, that women are not as safe as they thought they were. Of the 4,255 women interviewed for the survey, 99 per cent of them said they did not feel safe. What has changed to make so many women feel unsafe?

The public transport system in Mumbai is still better than in most Indian cities. Between the BEST buses and the local trains, over 80 per cent of the city's population travels. You would not know this if you saw the traffic jams at all times of the day. Yet, even people with cars and two-wheelers prefer Mumbai's public transport system. It is certainly a better and more pleasant option than spending long hours on the road. It is by no means as comfortable as the Delhi Metro. But the local trains especially are efficient and transport millions of people each day, way beyond their capacity.

Mumbai's local trains have separate women's compartments that do help in minimising the chances of sexual harassment on the trains. But in the buses, although there are a few seats reserved for women, there is no such separation between the space occupied by the men and women. It is here that women report the maximum amount of harassment by way of men rubbing against them, feeling them up etc. The survey revealed that 46 per cent of the women reported being sexually harassed. However, unlike Delhi, where women travelling on buses are afraid to shout or object to harassment because other passengers rarely support them, in Mumbai by and large women do get such support.

Apart from the buses, on Mumbai's streets too women report being touched, followed and subjected to lewd remarks. After dark, in areas such as the pedestrian underpasses, they feel particularly vulnerable. Girl students find that stepping outside their colleges is often hazardous as men are waiting to ply them with unwanted attention.

Changing experience

Why should any of this information come as a surprise? It does because the perception that Mumbai was safer for women was based on their lived experience. Ask any young woman who has grown up in Bangalore, or Delhi, or even Chennai about the sense of liberation she feels when she moves to Mumbai. The principal reason is the ease and safety of travel, even at late hours of the night. This gives them a sense of freedom, of choice, that they do not have in places where their movements are restricted because of the absence of safety after dark or the inadequacy of transport.

Women have used the trains and buses in Mumbai for decades. They have been in the public space, working in offices, selling wares on the streets, running small businesses, working in restaurants and in a myriad other jobs. So women have been an integral part of the public space in Mumbai for a much longer time than in more conservative cities in the North, for instance.

If despite this, the majority of women say they feel unsafe, then the reasons need to be considered and addressed. The steps taken to deal with this would be relevant not just for Mumbai's women, but for women in other cities as well.

One of the telling statistics in the survey was that 63 per cent of the women who faced harassment never told their families. Worst still, in a city where women have counted on support from men if they objected, 78 per cent of the men interviewed (776 men were part of the survey) admitted that they did not help.

What should be done? It is clear a stronger law is essential to deal with sexual harassment — at the workplace, in educational institutes and in the public space. Women should not feel that they have no option but to remain quiet. But even if there is such a law, it can only be effective if women feel it is possible to use it. Many cities, including Mumbai, are now beginning to realise the importance of not just laws but making it easier for women to approach the law enforcers. Hence in Mumbai there is one number that women can call if they are attacked or in need of help.

Larger context

But even a stronger law, better policing, a more responsive criminal justice system will not suffice. What is happening to women in our cities is the result of a growing culture of impunity — where you know you can get away with breaking a law regardless of whether it is a minor misdemeanour, like driving through a red light, or more serious crimes like defrauding public funds or even murder. In such an atmosphere, not just women but anyone who is vulnerable will feel unsafe.

At a time when people's protests seem to be making some impact on public policy, perhaps women too have to launch protests that demand an equal right to safety in public spaces. “Freedom from sexual harassment” is a campaign that everyone would support. Akshara has launched a Blow the Whistle campaign, urging women to shout out if they are harassed. College students in the Mumbai are conducting a Zero Tolerance Campaign, the Chappal Marungi and Freeze the Tease campaigns. These are positive steps. Women cannot afford to sit back and be silent victims.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

RELATED NEWS

Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012