Sexual harassment seems to be an occupational hazard in our cities… So how do we make them safer for women?

Sexual harassment. That is a phrase we have seen more than once in recent weeks in the media. From publishing houses to sports training, women have complained. Some have settled outside court, others have turned to the media, and many more continue to be silent, preferring not to go public. But that sexual harassment in various degrees is an occupational hazard that women face at all times is now a given.

In our cities, the harassment women face on the street, in the public domain, has taken on new forms. It is not just the touch; it is also the talk and the look. Walk down a street in practically any city in India, big or small. It is rare that you get through unscathed. If you are not pushed and prodded, you will definitely hear unwanted comment. And even if you are stone deaf, you cannot avoid the look in the eyes of the beholder who virtually undresses you in public. So am I exaggerating? Is this just a generalisation? Is this not the lived experience of millions of women, particularly younger women?

Irrefutable data

We now have some data that establishes what we already know. We did not need it. Things can change without producing numbers to show the extent of the problem. The problem itself should be enough to warrant some attention, to invite some thought on how things can change.

In continuation of a campaign that they began in 2004, Jagori, a women's group based in Delhi, has conducted an interesting survey of Delhi in the context of women's safety. Some of their findings are not surprising; others make one pause and think about what needs to change in the way our cities are structured.

The study itself was a joint Initiative of the Department of Women and Child Development, Delhi, Jagori, UNIFEM and UN HABITAT. It included 3,816 women, 944 men and 250 “common witnesses”. The latter is an interesting category as it included men and women who would have witnessed incidents of sexual harassment. These could be shopkeepers, bus conductors or drivers, or others, men and women, who have fixed locations on streets or other public areas. As a result, the study is textured and also more credible.

The majority of those in the survey were under 35 years of age. Over 40 per cent of the women and around 37 per cent of the men were college or university educated. However, roughly half the men and women, and 93 per cent of the common witnesses earned less than Rs. 10,000 a month.

For those who have lived, or live, in Delhi, it will come as no surprise that 85.4 per cent of the women, 87 per cent of the men and 93 per cent of the common witnesses said that sexual harassment was “rampant” in public places and that this was the single most important factor that made Delhi an unsafe city.

The locations where such harassment takes place are also interesting. While 84.9 per cent of the women reported it in market places, 83 per cent talked about Metro stations, 82.4 per cent in areas around schools and colleges and 79 per cent in industrial areas.

School and college students faced the highest incidence of verbal harassment as well as visual harassment (flashing, for instance). Interestingly, public transport, particularly buses, were the places where women experienced the maximum sexual harassment. This is something any woman who has had to travel on a DTC bus regularly can concur, regardless of her age.

Also significant is the fact that the majority of women expressed a lack of confidence in the police and said they would not automatically turn to them for help in the face of harassment in a public space. Over 40 per cent of them felt that either the police would not act, or they would trivialise the complaint. In fact, according to the survey, very few women, less than one per cent, have actually complained to the police about this kind of harassment when it occurs.

What is sad is that while the women had no faith in the police, those who witnessed acts of harassment admitted that they did not come forward to help, as they did not want to be involved.

The road was the location for the maximum amount of harassment, including while women waited at bus stops for their buses, followed by harassment once they actually got onto the bus.

Widespread violence

The survey concluded that “women and girls face violence and the fear of it on a continuous basis in the city. Due to the fear of violence and harassment many women do not have the autonomy to freely move in a variety of public spaces — markets, parks, bus stops, roads.”

None of this data is particularly startling. It pertains to Delhi but could be applied to most Indian cities in varying degrees. In small cities, the absence of public transport probably forces more women to stay inside their homes, as their mobility is restricted. In the bigger cities, although some forms of public transport are available, they are not geared to make women feel safe or comfortable. It is interesting that even the much-celebrated Delhi Metro was cited as a place where women were harassed.

What can one conclude from such surveys? That safe cities are those where women feel safe. That public facilities — such as transport, or public toilets, or shopping areas — must factor in women's safety as much as they should issues like access for the disabled. This does not require additional investment. It means you plan keeping these problems in mind. If you want half your population to feel safe and comfortable, you have to find the ways to do so.

Ways forward

Jagori has come up with concrete suggestions on how at least the physical infrastructure can be planned so that women's sense of safety is enhanced. For instance, better street lighting is one guarantee, 24-hour eateries at bus stops and train stations also ensure that there are people around, and a better system of public transport, with enough buses or trains to avoid overcrowding, or even separate women's compartments, as in Mumbai, go a long way.

Sadly, ultimately, even this might not suffice. You can give a city “world class” infrastructure, as is being attempted in Delhi around the Commonwealth Games — all the scams notwithstanding — but you cannot change attitudes overnight. It is men's gaze, their attitude, their inability to accept women as equals in the public domain that must change. Only then can our cities be safe and inclusive.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com