Excuse Me! Can I Just Live Freely In This City?

Over the past several years, it has become apparent that women's safety, or the lack of it, plays a central role in determining their mobility and access to a city. The data recently released by the Delhi government, of a joint survey with Jagori and UNIFEM conducted by New Concept Information Systems, highlights and reinforces earlier studies and media reports on how violence and the fear of it have come to define women's experience of the city. These surveys and reports clearly indicate that women and girls face constant threats to their well being in carrying out daily activities such as going to work, school, college, market, and so on.  

The data from an extensive survey of 5,010 people covering all the nine districts of the national capital at 22 locations with both men and women respondents has thrown up several interesting findings. Delhi seen through a gendered lens is not a pretty picture. Women's daily experiences include being stared at, followed, catcalls, and other forms of sexual harassment that is often referred to as "eve teasing". The survey reported that over 90 per cent women and 85 per cent men felt that just being a woman was a vulnerability. Over 70 per cent women were routinely subject to staring, leering and verbal forms of harassment and 30 per cent reported fearing a violent physical attack.  

It is clear that these are not issues to be dismissed or taken lightly. It is, therefore, important to name it as sexual harassment and not the more trivialised 'eve teasing', which gives it a light hearted touch and is often misunderstood as "harmless flirting". A whopping 66 per cent women respondents also reported that they had faced incidents of violence and harassment between two to five times in the past year, while 28 per cent had faced them more than five times. This reveals clearly that it cannot be seen as harmless fun, but as something which affects their ability to move around the city freely.  

In the week following the data release, several news channels interviewed women around the city and their experiences completely supported the findings.  

Young women, especially school and college students reported the highest number of cases of verbal harassment (87 per cent) and staring (75 per cent). Unfortunately, girls and women in this city learn very early that it is a jungle out there. They learn to avert their gaze, carry safety pins and not stay out after dark among other things.  

"Ever since childhood we are told - Never walk too close to a car, walk away, walk fast, look at all sides, observe shadows and one thinks - 'Excuse me! Can I just walk on this road?'" 

Despite these dire findings, it is heartening to note that women are not taking this lying down. In fact, one of most interesting findings of this survey is that more than 60 per cent women confronted the harasser in some way. This was uniformly high among women from different age groups and in different occupations. Even among younger women in schools and colleges, as many as 50 per cent reported responding to the harasser in some way. This finding echoes those from an earlier survey women conducted by Jagori in 2009. It is, therefore, important to recognise that while safety continues to be a concern for women, they are no longer ready to be only at the receiving end. Their responses included answering back verbally, shouting at the perpetrator or even responding physically. One woman's response was: 

"Ek 30-35 saal ka aadmi mere peeche khada ho kar mujhe haath laga raha tha. Achanak maine uska haath pakda aur uske mooh par do thappad mare" (A man of 30-35 was behind me and tried to feel me. I caught his hand and gave him two slaps!) 

Women's silence and the apathy of the public have often been cited as reasons for the impunity with which men are able to get away with sexual harassment and public violence in the city. Unfortunately, this increase in women's confidence to deal with situations of sexual harassment has not been accompanied by increased support from the public at large. The survey threw up the fact that 69 per cent men and 54 per cent women preferred not to get involved when they witnessed sexual harassment in public places. This lack of support from the public is echoed by the women themselves as only 17 per cent of them said that they had ever sought the help or support of bystanders.   

Surprisingly, women's own response has been supported in many cases by families. It is noteworthy that nearly 65 per cent of the women reported that they had turned to their families when faced with situations of sexual harassment. This was reported by women across all ages. This points to a significant change in the attitude of the family. While there are still many cases where the family may choose to restrict a woman's mobility due to fear of violence these results point to the fact that attitudes may be changing. There could be several reasons for this, including sound economic ones.  

Family response and support is the key to boosting a woman's confidence and her ability to deal with violence in her daily life. Traditionally, the Indian family has been known to see women as bearing the 'honour' of the family and place severe controls upon them. These ideologies are played out most starkly in the "honour killings" that have come into the limelight of late. While it is often the more heinous and violent crimes against women that come into the public glare, this survey also points to a more quiet change that is taking place. It is interesting to note that over 50 per cent of the women said that families had prepared them and even motivated them to be independent. When they shared incidents of sexual harassment at home, less than 10 per cent reported that their mobility was restricted for fear of violence. 

It is encouraging to note women's increasing confidence to assert their rights and the growing support of the family, even as their daily experience of the city continues to be one of violence and fear. While recognising the importance of police, state and other institutions in creating safer cities for women and girls, we cannot underestimate the role of positive actions and responses by individuals, families, communities and the society at large in creating safer environments.


More by :  Dr. Kalpana Viswanath

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