At the Munirka bus stand a little after 8pm on a recent Sunday night, 18 men wait to board vehicles headed towards West Delhi. Among them, a single young woman sits on the flood-lit bench in a salwar-kameez; she has come from a south Delhi mall, where she works, and is waiting for the 764 Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) “green bus” to take her on the second leg of her journey home to Dhaula Kuan.
Does this scenario make you slightly nervous? Ought it to? It’s been more than seven months now since another young woman took a lift on a privately-operated bus from the same stop and was brutally gang-raped. The attack, and her subsequent death, shocked the capital city out of its habitual inertia over the threat of sexual violence posed every day to nearly half of its inhabitants.
In the days and weeks that followed the December attack, thousands of women and men took to the streets to demand justice for the victim and a change in the prevailing attitudes to women’s rights in their city. But more than seven months later, despite judicial reforms, media scrutiny and the efforts of the police, the question of whether the average woman feels any safer remains largely unanswered.
Over the next 10 minutes in Munirka, several public buses come and go, but only three more women join the group where the girl sits. Deepa Joshi, who is 25, has taken this route five days a week for three years now. But she maintains strict rules about how and when she will travel. “At night, it’s not safe, there are very few girls,” she says, “I would never travel after 9pm. When I work a late shift, I take an auto home because on the bus, I never see any girls, it’s mostly drunk people.”
The daily commute by auto costs Rs.200, as opposed to Rs.60 for the buses, Joshi says, but she remembers the December rape and the vigil that was held at the bus stop after the woman’s death. “It was sad, and my parents get worried now. They call me up and ask where I am.” She pauses, “My timing is fine, that’s why I’m okay.”
Living within the limits
Like many women who use public transport out of necessity, Joshi feels safer because she abides by a set of unwritten rules for women in the city. She dresses demurely, makes no eye contact, avoids the more crowded buses and gets home early. In short, she takes all the advice that was handed out to women by the police and politicians in the wake of the December protests.
Since December, Delhiites have witnessed a series of efforts aimed at mollifying public fury. In the days that followed, a new government helpline for women, 181, was announced by Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. It would be the fourth call option for women (100, 1091 and 1096, the Delhi Police lines, are the alternatives). A month later, when then Delhi Police special commissioner Sudhir Yadav was appointed head of women’s safety cell, he gave out his mobile phone number, 9818099012, to the public for women to call at times of crisis. Yadav has since been transferred to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but that number is still operational.
Khadijah Faruqui, a human rights activist who is a consultant for 181, says she is impressed by its results. “We get 1,500 calls per day,” she says, “about 10% are women checking the line is working or hanging up, but I don’t mind that because it gives them assurance. Late at night, we get a lot of missed calls from women in their own private spaces.” The call centre passes emergency cases on to the police, Faruqui says, but it also arranges for soft interventions (for instance, if a woman is reluctant to leave her husband they may organize counselling or informal meetings with her) in cases of domestic violence, legal aid for women who want divorces, hostel applications and medical costs too, says Faruqui.
The exact efficacy and reach of helplines is hard to measure. In 2012, the non-governmental organizations Jagori and Multiple Action Research Group (Marg) in collaboration with UN Women conducted a study of the Delhi police helplines, published this year as part of their Safe Delhi campaign. Among the key findings were several worrying trends. Over 50% of the women surveyed (who included sex workers, slum dwellers, expatriates, homeless women, lawyers and doctors) had not even heard of a women’s helpline. Among those who had used it, the study said, “almost all have reported either a very slow response or no response at all”.
The survey also found that almost two in three women reported facing incidents of sexual harassment two-five times during the last year. Public transport, buses and roadsides were reported as spaces where women and girls face high levels of sexual harassment. Geetha Nambisan, a member of the Jagori team, says safety depends more on economic and social backgrounds than on location, however: “When we talk about the safety of lower-income women, it’s ironic that they are not safe even in the middle-class colonies that are gated and guarded. Domestic workers are catching buses at 5am in the morning to work in the posh colonies.”
Just 1% of the women surveyed said they had reported incidents of sexual harassment to the police. “The burden of ensuring safety remains upon women,” the study noted. “They try to ensure their own safety by not visiting certain places, staying indoors after dark, maintaining a dress code and carrying pepper spray and safety pins, etc.”
This observation is echoed at the street level, with many women in Delhi taking the attitude that they must be responsible for their own safety in the absence of help from the authorities. While riding the Metro recently, Bosky Hasija, a third-year undergraduate student at Gargi College, slapped a man who grabbed her and handed him over to the local police. Pujarini Sen, who moved from Kolkata to Delhi last year, says after initial problems of harassment from auto drivers, she’s started calling 100 up to five times a week. “They need to know that there are consequences,” she says. “I’m calmer now than I was when I arrived. One driver dropped me off and, when I argued with him, he laughed and said that these days (after the December rape), we are all really scared of women.”
Nambisan says her daughter was told by the organization she worked for not to work after 8pm. “It didn’t last long,” Nambisan says. “What is happening now is that so many more people are talking about the problem, willing to engage with it. It’s always been under the carpet before, it was only women’s groups working on these issues. Today, everyone is talking.”
Changing the institutions
The most substantial consequence of public outrage after 16 December was a January report by a three-member commission headed by Justice J.S. Verma, who died in April, recommending quicker trials and tougher sentences for rape, as well as for stalking, eve teasing, acid attacks and voyeurism. The report also asked for specific police reforms, including the mandatory registration by police officers of all rape complaints, and a review of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, which, it said, has legitimized impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of internal security by the armed forces.
By the end of March, The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, brought into force many of the Verma committee’s recommendations, but was criticized for failing to alter the prevailing legal position that a woman cannot allege rape against her husband. This month, when the sentencing of the only juvenile of the six accused men is imminent, the pressure is once again mounting.
Delhi’s newly-appointed police chief, Bhim Sain Bassi, was quick to take a position on what has become a highly political issue in an interview he gave to Reuters on 31 July, the eve of his first day on the job. Women’s safety would be his priority, he said. “Our charter is that women (should) feel safe anywhere in the city at any hour, whether they are at home, whether they are at the office, whether they are on the way to the office, or at any restaurant.”
It should be pointed out that Delhi’s reputation as the rape capital of India is a rather unfair one. Though the number of rapes reported is shooting up—there were 706 rapes in Delhi in 2012, compared to 572 in 2011, and 463 for the first four months of 2013 alone—a Delhi Police report points out that the incidence of rape per one lakh population has shown a steady decline in Delhi since 2005 till 2012. When compared to other Indian cities, Delhi comes lower than Bhopal, Jabalpur, Gwalior, Indore and Faridabad by the same measure.
Whether the bad reputation is exaggerated or not, however, it’s clear that the police can no longer afford to ignore the consequences of the spotlight on rape.
“After 16/12 everybody had to think about it, and repeatedly,” says B.S. Jaiswal, the deputy commissioner of police for south Delhi, who took over in May. “Now people are aware of their rights because of the sensitization. All our efforts are taken to chargesheet assault cases within one month, and all molestation/eve-teasing cases within 15 days.”
Jaiswal says police efforts are focused on getting more officers on to the streets after dark, especially women, on training the new recruits and on getting people to feel comfortable reporting a crime. “Let’s get them into the police stations. That’s the first step. The police should be approached immediately in such situations.”
Perhaps because of these efforts, or merely because the 16 December rape galvanized women into action, the number of cases of reported rape has shot up this year. Jaiswal suggests that a part of the spike might be attributed to false complaints, lodged by people with other grievances, hoping to force an arrest. The inclusion of a new section (166A) to the Indian Penal Code as part of the amendments this year may have encouraged this spike, by making the non-registration of a case of violence against women (including rape, sexual assault and domestic violence) by the police punishable with imprisonment or a fine.
Behind closed doors
Statistically speaking, however, the problem is not on the streets at all, but in the home; the greatest threat to most women is not from strangers but from their own families, neighbours and friends. Last year, of 706 rapes, 680 were carried out by people already known to the victim. As many as 96.32% of rapists in Delhi are family, friends or acquaintances of the victim—a majority that puts the installation of closed-circuit television cameras and improved street-lighting into perspective. In terms of incestuous rape in Delhi, 41% of victims are under the age of 14. Extra police vans and motorcycle patrols will not help these children.
Soumya Suresh of Apne Aap, a Delhi-based NGO that works to end sex trafficking and forced prostitution within the minority communities, says that when we talk about women’s safety in Delhi we tend to ignore the poorest and the most vulnerable.
“In these communities, the prostitution of daughters and wives is a kind of normalized custom, the community doesn’t consider it wrong,” Suresh says. “We have a mentality as a nation that is so feudal, society believes that all these women are from lower castes and so somewhere it’s okay. But, what about these girls? Aren’t they getting raped as well? They’re abused every way.”
The problem, according to Suresh, is a lack of connected thinking when it comes to notions of women’s safety, and a difference in the standards that are set for freedom and independence in different class and income groups.
“I don’t think there’s been much change in mentality,” says Suresh. “Society has created a space for girls: that they should be at home, where they will be safe. We don’t talk about how women compromise and restrict themselves to be safe. If I’m out at midnight or 1am, I have this feeling that no one is going to empathize with me if I am raped. It’s still, ‘You should know your place or I’ll rape you.’”
Behind closed doors, the problem is worse, according to a yet-to-be-published review by the philanthropy foundation Dasra, which surveyed 110 organizations on gender-based violence in India and found that violence in the home is grossly under-reported. “According to NFHS-3 (National Family and Health Survey), 33% of all women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence since age 15—the number is almost 40% for women aged 25-39,” said the report.
The problem, it seems, is both inter-generational and persistent. And it spans genders too. “More than half of young women and men agree that wife-beating is justified if a woman disrespects her in-laws and if she neglects the house or children,” the report said. “In fact, in all but five states, women are equally or more likely to agree with wife-beating than men.”
Joshi feels that she has got tougher with age. “In a DTC bus, I can slap anyone who tries anything; when I was in school it was much worse, but even now I feel a little scared.”
Her bus arrives and she hurries towards the open door. The bus is nearly full with passengers—four of them are women