Almost a decade ago, a newspaper advertisement issued in public interest by the Delhi Police showed women being harassed at a bus stand in the presence of silent male bystanders. The copy read: 'There are no men in this picture or this would not happen'. The text may have sexist overtones but it flags the fact that Delhi has long had a reputation for being the most unsafe city in India for women.
Research by civil society organisations like Jagori, a women's training, documentation and communication centre based in Delhi, revealed that public transport is one of the critical spaces where sexual harassment takes place. Yet, women are forced to suffer this crime in silence, as people around them - mostly men - choose to look the other way. Evenwhen a woman raises her voice against someone trying to invade her personal space, she gets no support, not even from the bus conductorwho is the sole interface between the transport authority and the public.
Anuradha Singh, 42, a Delhi professional, confirms this trend, "I have been commuting by DTC buses from college days. As a student one doesn't know how to deal with harassment and feels extremely violated. If one decides to challenge them, there is no help forthcoming. Things have not really changed over the years."
Adds Sakshi Khurana (name changed), 25, "Before I started commuting by buses I was given a list of do's and don'ts by my mother. But nothing worked."
In an effort to make the daily commute of women like Anuradha and Sakshi a little more secure, the Delhi Government's Department of Women and Child Development teamed up with Jagori, to organise a three-day gender sensitisation training workshop for the instructors of theDelhi Transport Corporation's (DTC). The workshop, held at DTC's training centre in Nand Nagri in North-east Delhi, was part of a project on making cities more gender inclusive.
A recent survey by Jagori conducted among women who have been living in Delhi for more than five years has confirmed that 70 per cent of women suffer sexual harassment of one kind or another in public places. Although its findings are yet to be formally released, the survey has shown that 38 to 40 per cent women face sexual harassment in buses, autorickshaws and even on the metro.
Keeping in mind this disturbing scenario, Jagori designed a training module to sensitise DTC instructors. They, in turn, train drivers and conductors - the men who can eventually help make a difference. Fifty DTC instructors participated in the programme, which was supported by UNIFEM and the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.
During the training, the message was clear: Safety of women commuters should extend beyond merely running "ladies special" services. According to the 30-page training module, DTC drivers should ensure that helpline numbers are displayed on every bus. It reminds drivers and conductors of their right to refuse entry to persons who are drunk or are carrying arms.
It enumerates nine actions that constitute sexual harassment and calls upon drivers to apprise supervisors in bus depots about cases of harassment and the action taken on such cases.
Besides, the module seeks to create legal awareness by listing the provisions in the Indian Penal Code that punish sexual harassment - Section 294 for obscene gestures or songs; Section 354 for outraging the modesty of a woman by using criminal force; and Section 509 for outraging a woman's modesty through obscene words or gestures.
Jagori has also taken a tough stand on the issue of reserved seats for women in DTC buses, which are much resented by men. The module clarifies that the seats reserved for women are their right and should continue to be so till commuting conditions are improved men can reclaim these reserved seats with ample evidence of conduct.
On the opening day of the training programme, Rahul Roy, a well-known documentary filmmaker credited with pioneering work on issues related to masculinity, initiated the interaction with DTC instructors by asking a simple question: "How many of you have heard of complaints of sexual harassment from women in the family?" To his surprise, only three instructors raised their hands. He then asked the instructors if they had ever asked women members in their families to share problems related to sexual harassment. The question evoked responses bordering onchauvinism. Stated an instructor from Gurgaon, "In our families, women don't even step out to buy a matchstick." Another added that if their female relatives were ever stalked or harassed, they as the men of the family would not spare the person indulging in such behaviour.
Roy listened and then set an assignment for the instructors. Their homework on day one was to ask any woman member of their family whether she had faced harassment in a public place. The following day, three instructors came back with the admission that women in their families had indeed faced harassment and often suffered these experiences in silence as they feared retaliation. The instructors were more vocal when it came to talking about cases of sexual harassment on DTC buses. Observed C.P. Singh, an instructor, "Men who are in the habit of passing lewd remarks don't make any difference between women in their twenties and women in their fifties."
Most instructors felt that drivers and conductors need to be empowered to take action in cases of sexual harassment. Said Singh, "We recently got a circular directing us to flash headlights and blow the horn to draw attention to a case of sexual harassment. The circular authorises the driver to approach a police control room or a police van for help."
However, Singh's colleague, Davinder Singh Tanwar, felt that dependence on the law may not always be the best solution. He recounted a case of sexual harassment in Naraina in West Delhi: "A boy of 21 years was stalking a schoolgirl. I got together with some locals and we took him to a barber and asked him to tonsure the boy's head and shave off his eyebrows."
Geetika Sharma, Joint Director in-charge of Women Empowerment Cell, Delhi Government, explained the relevance of such gender training exercises, "We want women to be able to step out of their homes and use public transport without fear. Every bus should have a complaints box and the driver and conductor should have the social authority to teach a lesson to those who harass women commuters."
According to A.K Srivastava, Senior Manager, Personnel and Training, DTC, over 3,600 DTC drivers and conductors had benefited from participating in an awareness building and gender sensitisation programme in 2007. "This time around, these 50 instructors will pass on the knowledge and wisdom they get from such training to 9,563 regular conductors, including 30 women conductors, and 9,536 drivers. They will do this through depot visits and refresher courses," he said. He believed that such efforts will motivate drivers and conductors to make quick and effective decisions in case they are confronted with a situation where a woman passenger is being sexually harassed.
DTC has a fleet strength of 4,500 buses. According to Srivastava, the Corporation is thinking of providing mobile phones to the 1,000 drivers on duty during Commonwealth Games. This would also aid them in seeking police help promptly, should it be needed.
If such interventions help make women like Anuradha and Sakshi feel more secure in the city, and encourage bus conductors and drivers to swiftly assess situations of harassment and respond effectively, they would have served their purpose. Delhi, besides being the capital of the country, has emerged as its crime capital as well. This dismal reality needs to be changed urgently.
By arrangement with WFS