A 16-year-old girl is on a crowded city bus. She holds on to the overhead railing with one hand, while hanging on to her school bag that straddles her body with the other. It's only when she gets off the bus that a friend points to a stain on her skirt and asks what it could be. Imagine their shock when they realise that a male passenger on the bus had masturbated on the skirt.
A random survey taken of 200 women, who commute within the city of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, recently revealed that 99 per cent of respondents felt the city was not safe for women. This comes as a surprise. Thiruvananthapuram has a reputation for being relatively secure for women in comparison to a city like Delhi, for instance, where a recent Jagori study revealed that women and girls in public spaces were subject to sexual harassment at all times of the day and night. It seems now that the reality is no different in Kerala's capital city, and that 'yathrapeedanam', or 'abuse on wheels', is a recurring experience for most women on city buses.
Says Rajitha G., Programme Co-ordinator, Sakhi, which had conducted this survey, "We were taken aback, especially at the attitudes of bus conductors who witness such incidents on a daily basis." During Sakhi's hour-long session at a conductor-training programme, the disturbing conclusions of the survey were met with a lot of apathy. "The conductors argued that when women themselves do not come forward to help a fellow commuter, why should a male conductor get involved. Some said they would have liked to intervene but were not sure what stand the victim would later take," reveals Rajitha. Most conductors are part-time employees and have other occupations, such as teaching. They seem to have no real stake in making life more secure for women commuters and profess that they do not wish to get embroiled in such "trivial issues", especially when they believe women often "ask for it by dressing provocatively". These personnel seemed more interested in talking about their grievances at work - the poor monetary compensation, the strict time-schedules, the hassles over shifts, and so on. Genuine grievances certainly, but something that should have contributed towards making them more sympathetic to working women who use public transport. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
In fact, many women are being forced to shift to the more expensive private modes of transport, even if they can ill afford to do so. Says R. Parvathydevi, an activist and freelance journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, "I am in my 50s now and I can tell you that I felt safer on the buses when I was in my 20s, although there was less choice of transport then. There is more harassment now. So much so that women in this city are opting for more expensive modes of transport like autorickshaws and AC coaches, not because they can easily afford them but just in order to commute peacefully and safely every day."
Being the state capital, all public buses in Thiruvananthapuram are run by the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), a government institution. The buses that KSRTC plies have a serious design flaw: They have only one door at the rear end of the bus that serves as both the entrance and exit. The women's seating arrangements are also at the rear end. This means that if a male passenger chooses to sexually harass someone as he enters or gets down from the bus, it would be difficult to accuse him of deliberately coming into close proximity with women commuters.
Interestingly, the segregation of male and female commuters seems to be the generally acceptable suggestion for dealing with the problem. Sakhi's coordinators, who attended conductor-training sessions in Palakkad, Kochi, Malappuram, Kannur and Trichur, found the male viewpoint strongly endorsing segregationist arrangements. But, as feminists in Kerala have argued, this is not just about seating arrangements, it is about educating the public to recognise and fight sexual harassment. Says well-known feminist K. Ajitha, President of Anweshi Women's Counselling Centre, Calicut, "In Kerala, you will never find a man and woman who are complete strangers sitting together on a bus. If they do, it is the woman's morality that will be questioned."
According to Ajitha, Malayali women are not aggressive enough. "There is some change and the fact that the vernacular media is beginning to publish reports on women who have reacted to sexual harassment on the streets and lauding their efforts for having done so, is an indication of this. But the pace of change is still too slow. Women have to learn to react," she says.
This perception was endorsed by conductors that Sakhi contacted. According to them, female commuters in Kerala fail to react when harassed. Observes Rajitha, "Once the bus crosses the Tamil Nadu border, things take a very dramatic turn. Women in Tamil Nadu respond very strongly to the slightest suspicion of misbehaviour."
Sakhi is now working to create greater public awareness on this issue and has set up panchayat resource teams of 25 gram panchayat members each. Through posters, newsletters and regular public meetings, it hopes to educate the public to react to such unacceptable behaviour. "The idea is not to create a scene but to ensure a hostile response - whether by making eye-contact or loudly confronting the attacker," explains Rajitha.
The campaign is all set to carry on. Sakhi has released 14,000 and 10,000 stickers each to the KSRTC and the police of Thiruvananthapuram district, which have the words 'Stop Abuse of Women in Buses' on them, with two helpline numbers printed across in bold red ink. But sometimes even these stickers fared poorly. Sakhi members found some of them scribbled with obscene graffiti and with the numbers scratched out in the city's bus depots.
There is also a plan to undertake a more detailed and extensive survey in one more city in Kerala - Kozhikode (Calicut) - by using the methodology evolved by Jagori in partnership with UNIFEM. It will have questionnaires as usual but it will also have focus group discussions that include women from physically challenged or deprived backgrounds who use public transport regularly. There will also be a 'capacity gap analysis', while pinpointing loopholes in existing policies through measures like a safety audit for women in public places. Such a safety audit will zero in on the most danger-prone areas and check out aspects like infrastructure - the presence of street lamps, for example. Each area will be mapped both during the day time and night, in terms of security. Whether, for instance, there are sufficient "eyes on the street": The presence of vendors and hawkers - which help to make public places more secure - and whether there is a police station or assistance booth in the vicinity.
But most important of all for Sakhi is to raise public awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment in very clear-cut terms. "It was difficult to explain this for the first time. Sexual harassment can be anything from a slight brush of the hands to groping," says Rajitha, adding, "Women are subject to lewd comments or have someone break out into a song full of double-entendre in their presence. They have to face 'flashers' and strangers driving up to them in cars with offers of lifts."
The question ultimately is this: When will society understand that sexual harassment, no matter what form it takes, is unacceptable and needs to be confronted by everybody - from the women commuter herself to the casual bystander.
By arrangement with WFS