Last week saw the release of India’s Daughter, a revealing (and, frankly, horrifying) documentary about the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student on a Delhi bus. The film has brought the problem of women’s safety in India to the fore once again.
The film brutally illustrated how unsafe the women of Delhi actually are on public transport, especially at night. According to a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last October, the city’s transport system is the fourth worst of the 16 largest world capitals when it comes to women’s safety on public transit.
It also highlighted the extent to which the problem stems from social values. Something the men charged with the attack and their defence lawyers had in common, despite their drastically different situations and backgrounds, was the belief that the attack was justified because the woman was unmarried and travelling alone with a man at night.
But, partly as a result of the 2012 attack, it looks like the Delhi government and police force are now trying to do something about it. First, they’re putting more boots on the ground (and under it). The Hindu reported that the city government is creating a “task force” to make female commuters “more comfortable” (we’re assuming this also means “more safe”) on public transport. This means Civil Defence and Home Guard officers will be stationed in carriages after dark.
Meanwhile, the city’s female-only police force (these are common across India) is handing out leaflets and patrolling buses and trains to raise awareness of the problem. Since October 2014, female plainclothes officers have also been stationed in metro carriages, to clamp down on sexual harassment as it happens.
Another line of attack lies in better connecting women to police services via their smartphones. “Himmat”, a safety app launched by the police at the beginning of the year, allows women to send SOS texts directly to police. Then there’s a Whatsapp group, where women can post pictures of a rickshaw or taxi’s registration to the police before they climb aboard. They can also send messages if they feel endangered, which police can respond to using the numberplate in the previous message.
Indian Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh at the launch of the Himmat safety app in January. Image: Getty.
Other measures have been in place for much longer. On the Delhi Metro, the first carriage of every train is reserved for women. The move is meant to ensure their safety, but it’s become increasingly controversial. In the wake of the 2012 bus attack, Delhi residents started a hashtag campaign, where each made a pledge to make their city safer. This selection collected by the group Blank Noise implies that the solution lies in taking up and reclaiming spaces, not by staying in women-only ones:
In fact, the idea that women-only transport is only a stop-gap is becoming pretty widespread. Julie Babinard, a senior transport specialist from the World Bank, told the Thompson Reuters foundation last year that women-only carriages can only ever be a short-term fix:
The emerging interest in several countries on women-only initiatives should be seen as an opportunity for improving security in cities but not as a silver bullet for dealing with gender-based violence in transportation and urban settings.
Whatever the solution, it seems like change is in the air aboard Delhi’s transport. While it may seem like a small part of the puzzle, women’s ability to travel freely and safely is vital to their empowerment: it means they can work and socialise on their own terms and, in turn, be economically independent. And it means they can go out to the cinema to celebrate passing their medical exams without fear of punishment from those who’d rather they didn’t have any freedom at all.
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