Women's safety has become an increasingly highlighted issue in India over the last few years. Several incidents have received considerable media attention and become the subject of intense debate among politicians, police and civil society. There are, however, numerous incidents that have never been noticed or reported, partly because women have become so accustomed to them. These include frequent occurrences of 'eve teasing' (a term used primarily in India to refer to instances of harassment in public places) which are part and parcel of daily life.
There are many who would argue that the issue of women's safety is over-hyped and exaggerated, creating an impression that India is the worst place on earth for women. Indeed, if one goes by the statistics, India is probably not the worst country but is certainly among the worst given the tragically high rates of female feticide, child marriage and trafficking, in addition to violent crimes like rape. Of course, it is also important to remember that under-reporting is a major challenge in India. This is partly because a large number of crimes against women are committed at home by relatives and can result in stigmatisation of victims who report them. Additionally, crimes like gang-rape, stalking and acid attacks were not even considered within the realm of official statistics until the amendment of the law in February, 2013.
However, instead of merely examining statistics, which is what discourse on women's safety often get limited to, I believe it is more important to appreciate that women need to be able live their daily lives without a general feeling of unease. I have highlighted two factual episodes to illustrate my point:
1) As a young girl in school, I remember noticing a laboratory assistant during class sitting on the stool beside me with his trousers unzipped and doing 'something' to himself which obviously at that age I could not even comprehend. However, I vividly remember feeling that something was not quite right. The fact that the incident which happened so many years ago is still fresh in my mind also goes to prove the kind of psychological impact merely witnessing something like this can have. I did not tell my teachers or parents about this when it happened perhaps because I felt uncomfortable talking about it.
2) My friend who had moved from the US to Delhi to work for a few months used to travel in auto rickshaws fairly regularly. She was always very conscious of the local culture and hence made sure that she was 'appropriately' dressed at all times (yes, she never stepped out in a short skirt!). One day at about 10 am an auto driver dropped her right outside her workplace in a relatively busy and posh South Delhi locality. She did not have the right amount of money so went inside her office briefly but what she saw when she returned was something she probably wouldn't have imagined in even her wildest dreams. The driver with his trousers unzipped was masturbating and staring straight at her. She just threw the money at him and ran back inside her office building. She considered reporting this incident but decided not to go ahead as she was sceptical and apprehensive about the process of lodging the complaint and the subsequent investigation process.
These incidents might seem bizarre or unusual but the reality is that many women have experienced something similar at some point in their lives. Episodes like these might never make it to official statistics, however, it is because of them that women simply find it difficult to live their lives freely without a constant underlying fear of something potentially going wrong. After what happened with her, my friend was terribly shaken up and it is highly likely that she will be quite wary the next time she takes an auto rickshaw in Delhi.
Also, it is important to note that neither of these incidents happened in dark, dingy or secluded places. The reality is that such acts are committed all around us and even if they come to our attention, many of us choose to be bystanders or simply ignore them. But we do so at our own peril. Rapists do not just start raping one fine day. Many of them show signs of deviant behaviour over a period of time which either goes unchecked or unreported.
Moreover, these examples also emphasise the need for parents, teachers, police officials and the society in general to facilitate open discussions on such issues. The stigma and awkwardness attached with them needs to be done away with so that even a young school girl can feel comfortable talking about something that she might have seen or experienced that did not feel right to her.
Even if we are not the worst country when it comes to women's safety, we can certainly do a lot more to ensure that women feel more secure, inside and outside their homes. Of course every crime cannot be prevented, however, the general sense of discomfort that exists needs to change. Being a Delhiite and having travelled all over the world, I feel sad to say that I still feel most uncomfortable when stepping out of my house in Delhi. I do hope this will change someday but that will truly need a collective effort from all of us instead of simply passing the buck to the police or government of the day.