Creating a safer environment for women is not only the responsibility of the police or the government, but also a matter for us. With women entering public spaces in greater numbers, changing the capital’s entrenched culture of violence is necessary and possible

Less than two weeks after the brutal gang rape of the 23-year-old student on a Delhi bus, the issue of women’s safety has been overshadowed by other incendiary fallouts and squabbles over the protests, which were carried out by thousands demanding justice for the victim. In the year ahead, it is imperative not to lose sight of the overarching challenge of protecting Indian women against the rising tide of dangers. Devising and enforcing an agenda for women’s safety is a daunting task , but the call for “we want justice,” which rang out over India Gate, needs a clear agenda and practical action.

Women today are entering public spaces in large numbers. Every family, however poor, attempts to send its girls to schools. Girls today aspire to a better and higher education and indeed outnumber and outperform boys in colleges and universities. For a young woman, of every class, marriage and children and the kitchen are no longer her only aspiration, but many dream of a job, a career and a place in society outside the home. Unlike earlier generations, young women today are no longer cowed down by society and are not afraid to speak their minds. Nor do they meekly accept that they are inferior to men and must bear whatever punishment is imposed on them in public or at home.

‘Accepted’ culture

However, Delhi has always had a culture of various forms of violence against women in public places. It is “accepted” that a group of men may pass a lewd comment against a woman in public, or that they may “brush up” against her in a bus. For young men, harassing women is a right of passage, and is covered up in the mild word “teasing.” It is not uncommon for this form of open harassment to lead to actual molestation and even rape. Every girl and woman living in Delhi can testify to cases of sexual harassment in public space, while the capital also has the highest number of reported rapes in the country and a dismal conviction rate.

The attitude of the general public in Delhi supports this anti-woman culture. Women today often fight back, but are rarely supported by others, even in crowded places. Every incident, whether in a bus or the metro or on the road, has some men muttering “look at the way she is dressed” or “you should be silent, these things happen” or “she invited it,” or “girls should remain at home, why is she out on the streets?” These kinds of comments are echoed by public personalities where only “dented and painted” women protest!

If women are to continue on this path towards becoming useful and equal members of society, it is imperative that their safety in public places be guaranteed. We have seen many women who have had to withdraw from schools or jobs because of the harassment they face in buses or on roads. This is especially true of poor or middle class families where the first generation of girls are emerging from their homes or traditional occupations.

Creating a safer environment for women is not only the responsibility of the police or the government, it is a matter for us all. Changing the Delhi culture is a long process that needs concerted effort over months, years and decades. The police and courts need to be active allies in this.

The steps needed

First, it is necessary for women to speak up. Silence encourages the perpetrators, and ensures that they behave worse next time. Second, men must support women when they speak up. They must make the perpetrator feel ashamed and apologetic. Third, the police must play an active role. Sexual harassment is not “teasing,” it is a crime, and the perpetrators cannot be treated with a smirk and that “boys will be boys.” Finally, when such crimes reach the courts, it is necessary for the courts to also treat them seriously. Many judges view molestation and rape cases as the woman’s fault and treat her like the criminal, rather than the victim, often using words in their judgments which betray their biases. At the same time these cases are allowed by a court to drag on for years, so that the victim never gets justice, but continues to be harassed by the criminal who is out on bail. Delhi had 635 reported rape cases in 2012 with only one conviction. It had 193 cases of “eve teasing” reported with zero convictions.

The goal should be results over rhetoric. To begin with, certain public areas in Delhi should be identified to execute a targeted response. Some public spaces where harassment occurs are buses and bus stops, metros, spaces outside schools and colleges and market areas. It is important to protect women and change the culture in these areas. The Delhi Metro has had a remarkable record in making it safe for women, but conditions are deteriorating in Metros and much more needs to be done. The protection of women needs a programme that involves increased patrolling, increasing lighting of dark areas, introducing CCTV cameras and GPS in buses and trains.

Additionally, there should be police booths in areas where there are schools and colleges for an immediate response to women-safety related complaints; and a helpline for women with a set response time to be accessed via phone, emails and texts with photo/s of the offenders sent by mobile phone. Perhaps most effective would be immediate punishment or fines on the spot as is done in traffic-related offences.

Posters, hoardings, announcements and advertisements make an important difference in people’s consciousness. Posters inside metros and buses can encourage men to behave properly and respect women — an image with a big cross for a man staring or groping a woman. A sustained advertisement campaign must follow. Besides public service messages and private companies featuring women’s products should focus on messages encouraging women to speak up.

Using information

However, most important is the need for citizen patrolling and citizen-police cooperation. Parents of school and college girls are often willing to work with police to protect their children. They need to be tapped in large numbers. Women’s organisations, and non-governmental organisations (NGO) working with women and girls are able to mobilise and provide information to the police on areas where women face harassment. These NGOs need to be drawn into partnership with the police and government efforts.

Changing the culture of a city is hard work, but it needs to be done. Otherwise, women will continue to face the continuum of sexual harassment from lewd remarks to brutal rape. Decades of efforts to empower women will fail as fear forces them out of public spaces.

(Renana Jhabvala is the national coordinator of SEWA and president of SEWA Bharat, and Betwa Sharma is a Delhi-based journalist focusing on human rights.)