In the past week, the media coverage has relentlessly focused on the safety of women in Tamil Nadu. The city of Chennai, which has long prided itself as a safe place for women, finds itself at a crossroads. At least six women have been murdered across the city under very different circumstances. This has raised questions about women's safety, cyber crimes and most importantly, governance and political leadership. What happens next will determine whether any lessons are learnt from these unfortunate incidents or if we will all carry on until the next gruesome assault or murder.
The scene of the crime; inset: Swathi
The case of 24-year old Swathi was at the centre of the media coverage. She was hacked to death while waiting on the platform of Nungambakkam railway station. Many of us immediately connected with this Chennai girl, much like Delhi did with Nirbhaya. Warm-seeming, educated and employed with a software company, this was someone who could be a sister, neighbour, colleague or a college friend.
In the recent past, we have seen that gruesome crimes against women were committed in the late hours of the day but this young woman was killed in broad daylight. Nearly a week passed with little tangible progress in this case, and it was frustrating to see different law enforcement agencies of the government arguing over jurisdiction when there should have been a collective effort to investigate. Fortunately, the alleged killer was taken into custody last week, we can now hope that justice for Swathi is not far away.
CCTV grab of Swathi's killer
While the manhunt was on in Swathi's case, another shocking incident came to light. Vinupriya from Salem committed suicide after prolonged harassment on social media. In this case, the 21-year old victim had even approached police with a complaint seeking investigation, for which she was asked to pay a bribe by the policemen in charge of the cyber-crimes division. This has all been sadly exposed after the life of this young woman was unnecessarily lost. Here, there was no confusion over jurisdiction, and even the offender could have been easily identified and asked to desist. Yet, the police added to the harassment and ultimately contributed to the young woman's death.
Jayalalithaa must ask herself whether she has done enough to alleviate the concerns and fears of young working women in the city.
Just as in other gruesome cases which have happened under her watch, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has not spoken out or addressed a press conference to spell out what she has done. As the one who heads the police force, she cannot escape moral responsibility for these crimes committed and owes people an explanation. In her previous term, Jayalalithaa had issued a statement on 1 January 2013, listing a 13-point agenda for improving women's safety.
Specifically, the last three items in that statement are:
-- setting up a 24-hour free "Women Helpline" to help women in distress.
-- affixing CCTV cameras in "all public buildings" across Tamil Nadu to identify those involved in crimes against women.
-- deputing plainclothes police persons in public places to take action against those harassing women.
If only the government had taken action to implement the statement of their Chief Minister in the last three and half years! One cannot help but think that had Swathi had called a women's helpline she might have been alive today. Or if there had been CCTV cameras in public buildings, perhaps her killer would not have been emboldened to attack her. Or if plainclothes policemen and women were providing security to common persons like Swathi, instead of three-tier bandobust for Jayalalithaa every time she goes to her party office.
Ultimately, it is the state government which is tasked with maintaining law and order. Jayalalithaa must ask herself whether she has done enough to alleviate the concerns and fears of young working women in the city. At least now the safety of working women in Tamil Nadu should become a matter of priority for the government.
While governments focus largely on maternity benefits, marriage assistance or old-age pension schemes, there is a huge segment of working women who face numerous hurdles in the course of their employment. For example, while the Protection of Sexual Harassment against Women in Workplaces Act was passed among much fanfare but none of its committees have been put in place here. Similarly, most women who travel to work are often targets of stalking, harassment, chain snatching and thefts. There is no simple solution, but the government must improve patrolling and surveillance.
The government must not watch silently as the city, which is regarded as a cultural hub, falls in danger of becoming a crime capital.
While the investigation in the Swathi case was on, there were a number of motivated statements regarding the character of the victim as well as the alleged perpetrator. These statements made by eminent members of our society have the capacity to derail the process of justice and cast unnecessary aspersions. It is devious to reduce this to a caste or religious issue. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the safety of women transcends caste, religious or class boundaries.
Ultimately, much of last week, there seemed to be a leadership vacuum in government. No minister or representative of the government held a press conference to quell fears that Chennai is fast becoming unsafe for women. Whatever be the public relations strategy of the government, it must not watch silently as the city, which is regarded as a cultural hub, falls in danger of becoming a crime capital.
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