By Aashika Ravi
Last month, the Kashmir Women’s Collective went to the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar for a peaceful lie-down with the simple objective of reclaiming public spaces. In their Facebook post about the action, they said, “Public spaces in most societies and more so in our society are predominantly occupied by men. Take a stroll, go to a public office, walk around in a garden, go to shops and businesses, all you see are men. Men have the liberty to laugh loudly, to sit the way they want to, to gaze aimlessly and occupy and claim public spaces. Whereas women, even if present in these spaces, get a strict code to follow.”
The reactions of men, unsurprisingly, ranged from unimpressed to straight-up seething. One man was of the impression that going to a park was a “western value.” His exact words were, “Demanding western values in Muslim state is same as wishing for snow in summer… advocating sitting in a park with stretched legs, laughing loudly, walking half naked is to some extent unacceptable at this moment of time.”
Anywhere in the country, it’s hard to see women embracing public spaces wholeheartedly and feeling completely at ease in their interactions with these spaces.
Save the Children in India, an international NGO, recently released a report called Wings 2018: World of India’s Girls. A very significant article by IndiaSpend analysed the findings of this report on the perception of safety in the country. The report is based on a study conducted across six states – Assam, Delhi-NCR, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and West Bengal — across 30 cities and 84 villages in 12 districts. The report discusses the perception of girls’ safety in public places, from the perspectives of young girls, young boys and parents of adolescent girls. Its sample consisted of 3,128 adolescent girls, 1,141 young men (aged 15-18), 248 young women (aged 19-22) forced to marry early, and 842 parents of adolescent girls.
A fear of open and crowded places was found to be common across the country, but what’s noteworthy about the report is the marked difference in the patterns of interaction of girls in urban and rural areas with public spaces, and the reasons for them.
One of the key findings of the study is that young girls fear for their safety the most while using public transportation. In both urban (47 percent) and rural (40 percent) areas, young girls felt most vulnerable and afraid of sexual assault in public transport.
In urban areas, women’s safety in public transport has not gone unaddressed. From ladies’ compartments in metros and local trains to introducing all-women special police cells, this issue has been deemed important enough to prompt government action.
The Delhi government, for example, has installed CCTVs in 200 DTC buses. Bus marshals and a panic alarm system, which will alert the conductor and driver to any misdemeanours, are expected to feature in all buses from March 2019.
But what of rural areas which have less connectivity, and even fewer options for public transport?
In most households, the man of the house usually gets first preference in available private vehicles. Young girls must resort to whatever public transport is available to them, as unsafe as it may be.
Their other options are either walking or cycling down to school. Now, you’ll never guess what young girls in rural India are most afraid of after public transport — narrow roads leading to schools, local markets, and private tuition classes. Despite this, 80 percent of the girls prefer walking or cycling to school in small towns.
The report supplies us with yet another painful statistic. Young girls often don’t report cases of sexual harassment for two main reasons — fear that they will be blamed for it, and a fear that their freedom will be curtailed. This isn’t an unfounded fear either. Over 50 percent of parents admitted that they would in fact, reprimand their daughters for being sexually harassed, and 42 percent admitted to possibly curtailing their movement if an incident of molestation occurred.
It’s also instructive to look at what the safest places for girls are perceived to be. Despite caste discrimination still being prevalent, in the minds of the girls surveyed, schools seem to represent a space where girls and boys are essentially treated equally. In both urban and rural areas, a whopping 96 percent of girls considered school to be a safe place.
Apart from school or tuitions, girls in rural India don’t access public places as much as they would like to. Only 15 percent of girls in rural areas felt safe even while simply taking a morning walk. Young girls are also vulnerable while in the act of defecating in open. A mere 10 percent of girls in villages felt they were safe when they were relieving themselves.
In a research paper published in Bio-Med Central Journal, researcher Approva Jadhav said that women who practice open defecation were twice as likely to be victims of sexual violence. “Open defecation places women at uniquely higher risk of one type of sexual violence: non-partner,” she says.
Save the Children India’s study hasn’t only surveyed adolescent girls, it also interviewed young boys and parents of young girls about the perceived safety of women. These statistics too were quite troubling. For instance, one in three boys believed that slapping a woman to reprimand her was not violence. Growing up with a belief system such as this makes it plainly evident, why this could be a grave problem especially in areas that are still controlled by powerful, male-dominated panchayats.
In Uttar Pradesh, a khap panchayat in Madora made using mobile phones in public a punishable offence for women, with a fine of Rs. 21,000. The panchayat declared that it was to prevent incidents of sexual harassment of women while they were distracted by their cell phones in public. But don’t yet comfort yourself by thinking that’s just the villages.
The latest National Family Health Survey data defined “freedom of movement” in terms of whether women were allowed to go alone to the market, a healthcare facility and to places outside the village or community. The study found only 41 percent of women in India are allowed to go alone to all three of these places, and 6 percent of women are not allowed to go alone to any of these three places.
UN Women recently wrote,”Planning and designing safe public spaces for women and girls means analysing the various uses of public spaces, who uses them, when, and for how long. This kind of planning and design also focuses on who doesn’t use a particular public space, when, and why. This is because when certain groups, like women or girls, do not use a space, it is usually an indication that the space feels insecure to members of that group,” it explains. Save the Children’s report lists cinema halls as another fearful place for girls. As many as 28 percent of girls in cities, mostly from low-income groups, fear for their safety in cinema halls. Here, the report suggests the reason for this could be the presence of people from the higher rungs of the caste and class system.
“A plausible explanation for this could be that these girls from the slums or the economically weaker section fear that their complaints may go unheard in a place occupied by the relatively better placed–class wise and caste wise,” the report said.
All the technological advancements that governments are making in the sphere of women’s safety in public spaces fall flat on their faces in the absence of their adopting intersectional feminism, or a feminism that takes into account varied, overlapping frameworks of oppression. Without talking about class and caste, women across the country will never feel safe.
Women’s safety is always inflected by caste and class. The differences in perception of safety in public spaces need to be analysed, especially by state governments that introduce policies for women’s safety like it’s as simple as sticking on arbitrary bandaids while leaving other spots bleeding. Whatever the government has done to this end so far, the textures of caste and class have been left behind somewhere in their noble pursuit of Stree Suraksha.
Co-published with Firstpost