How many times have we heard parents, family members, friends and the media proclaim that ‘Delhi is unsafe for women’?
Now, Thomson Reuters Foundation’s latest poll seems to confirm what we’ve been telling each other all along — that Delhi is indeed unsafe. The poll, which surveyed 380 experts on women’s issues, ranked the national capital as the worst among 19 megacities for sexual violence and harassment of women alongside Sao Paulo.
Which makes this poll based on perceptions and not solid data. The report also makes a reference to the December 2012 rape case, which not only prompted thousands of people to protest demanding gender justice and equality, but is also a journalist-favourite while writing about rape in the country. As Rukmini Shrinivasan, editor of data and innovation for HuffPost India, noted in a piece for The Hindu in 2015, “after December 2012, the media began to report every complaint of sexual crime in greater detail. Every day, it seemed to me, a woman was being pulled into a car and raped or sedated and abducted from a busy market.” It was a perception that she didn’t trust and decided to investigate with data (more on this later).
Let’s forget about perceptions and even data for a moment and look at what really makes a woman feel safe or unsafe in a city?
Sometimes it’s a feeling, which is where this poll comes into play. Mallika Taneja, a Delhi-based theatre artiste, knows that feeling too well. A couple of years ago, Taneja created a one-woman show called Thoda Dhyan Se, a darkly comic send-up of all the ‘little’ precautions women are warned to take in ‘bad’ places. It begins with Taneja either in her underclothes or nude, declaiming, “Thoda dhyan se rehena chahiye, aapko pata hai na zamana kharab hai? Jab aapko pata hai zamana kharab hai to thoda dhyan se bas.” (“You should be a little careful. You do know the world is a bad place, right? When you know the world is a bad place, then you should be a little careful, that’s all.”) What does Taneja think of this proverbial bad place for women and how it has scored in these polls?
Taneja says, “Every time my phone is out of juice, I feel so, so, so scared [in Delhi] if I’m out late at night. It’s not possible for me to relax, because I won’t be able to call anybody if I get into trouble. And the probability of getting into trouble is very, very high. All of these things we say about the city are absolutely true; it’s not like someone’s trying to malign it. Delhi has done enough for all of these things to be said about it. Delhi is unsafe when compared to other Indian cities. The aggression of Delhi is really quite unique.”
Here’s the thing about perceptions and the feeling of safety — it differs from person to person. Writer Mridula Koshy, who has lived in and written about Delhi for decades, feels safe there. Like Taneja, she says that harassment on the streets and in public spaces is constant, but adds, “Delhi feels quite safe to me because it’s a very public city, because every other corner is a gathering place. We have so much of life happening out in the open. Even if you take a walk at night, there are people all around. When you talk about harassment, I don’t live in fear in Delhi.”
What does the data say about how unsafe Delhi is for women? According to the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Delhi reported the highest crime rate (184.3 percent) compared to the national average of 53.9 percent. Even when it comes to sexual offences, Delhi stands first (43.6 percent) followed by Odisha (22.2 percent).
But are numbers to be trusted? Take the Safe Cities Index 2017 (a report from The Economist Intelligence Unit), which placed Delhi at 43 (above Mumbai at 45) and Karachi at 60. Or even NCRB’s 2015 report, which puts Jodhpur (13.4 percent) above Delhi (11.6 percent) when it comes to the rate of rape per lakh population.
And what if you live in a place where ‘women’s safety’ perceptions are just as heated as they are about Delhi? Kavita, the digital head at Khabar Lahariya and anchor of The Kavita Show, who travels frequently between Bundelkhand (Uttar Pradesh) and Delhi for work, says she initially thought women in Delhi were safer than Bundelkhand but “I’ve noticed that it’s not true. Only last week, an autowala tried to take me to a wrong area in Delhi. I deeply feared for my safety. The statistics are not entirely lying. I feel it’s a lot more unsafe than the statistics say.”
When we talk about rape and sexual harassment, there’s always a notion that it’s by a stranger lurking in a dark corner on the streets. For many people, Delhi particularly represents this. Actually, in 95 percent of all rape cases, the offender knew the victim. This is according to 2015 NCRB data, which should put the stranger-on-the-street theory to rest.
Koshy unpacks this narrative a little more. “The hatred and fear of working class people definitely contributes to seeing rapists as strangers and contributes to the ‘I can’t get in an auto or taxi at night because I’m a woman alone’ refrain. In fact, lots and lots of my friends and I use autos and taxis at night. I think that we need to bring attention to the understanding that rape or sexual harassment mostly happens within families and within circles of acquaintances. That kind of sensationalised coverage that ‘Delhi is the rape capital of the world’ definitely intersects with the story of the working class rapists.”
In 2014, Rukmini Shrinivasan, did a six-month-long investigation, analysing cases that involved sexual assault in Delhi’s six district courts in 2013, interviewed judges, police, public prosecutors, the accused and their families, the complainants, and others involved. She writes that this gave rise to a “complex picture of the nature of sexual assault” in Delhi — “a city that has come to be known as India’s ‘rape capital’.”
Shrinivasan says the city’s concentration of media adds to its perceptions and that “it’s not ideal but it isn’t to be discounted either, because of the sense of how you experience a city.” A reason why she started looking at stats was because of all the perceptions and she wanted to know “if this really was how I should feel about the city.” Shrinivasan says a lot of it wasn’t justified “because media reporting is deeply problematic as it’s usually a regurgitation of the FIR” which is “a very contentious document. I did feel that reality didn’t actually measure up to my perception.”
But perception-based surveys look like they’re here to stay, such as this recent survey of 20,597 households across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai by the IDFC Institute, which noted that 87 percent of Delhi households worry if some aren’t home by 9 pm. IDFC conducted this survey because there’s no data to measure how safe people think their neighbourhoods are.
Here, data is important because it can help shape efforts to allocate funds, to find out the gap in crime occurrences, how much is the difference between incidents and how they’re reported… But not all crimes are reported, especially those that are sexual. In that sense, data doesn’t give us the full picture. For Shrinivasan, the solution then is to look for “better data”, such as “good national representative surveys about experienced sexual assault”, so “measuring that against reported crimes and comparing it by different cities will give you a good understanding of the level of reporting in different cities.” She says, for Delhi, “it’s more closely tracked than in other cities and it [Delhi] sees a huge gap between reporting and reported crime.”
So it’s difficult to attribute women’s perceptions of safety to actual crime rates, and other factors like how accessible public spaces are, acquittal rates, safe spaces in public or even changing social norms. A Gallup data survey in 2011 showed that women feel less safe than men in developed countries and offers this thought that’s too long to be on a poster but should be — “gender gaps in perceptions of physical safety point to underlying social issues that economic progress and better policing often fail to adequately address.”
Unfortunately, the perception of safety is what inflects women’s everyday and lifelong choices.
Kavitha, with characteristic wit, compares the everyday lives of women in ‘backward’ Bundelkhand to those of women in Delhi. “I’ve seen that women in many pockets of Delhi have the same restrictions to freedom as women in Bundelkhand — like wearing a ghoonghat, constantly having to wear dupattas and having to take permission from the patriarch. Except they call this measures of safety”.
Co-published with Firstpost.