Nayantara Janardhan personally takes all bookings for the taxi service she and her business partner Meenu Vadera started in November. A COO’s job description shouldn’t normally include answering the phone, but this is Delhi. Safety is a huge concern when you’re running a taxi service for women, by women in India’s rape capital, so all of Sakha’s drivers attend a self-defence module conducted by the Delhi Police. They carry pepper spray and helpline numbers; know their legal rights and what to do in a hostile situation. They ensure there’s always at least one female customer in the cab.
That’s not all. They work as private chauffeurs for a year, before they graduate to driving their own taxis. The registration form to hire a chauffeur is exhaustive and you must list your family members, domestic help, daily work timings, your travel route, etc. “If we’re not comfortable with the answers, we’ve even sent scouts to the customer’s house,” says Janardhan.
As women increasingly negotiate the public spaces that were until recently almost exclusively male (even today you rarely spot any women walking on many of Delhi’s roads after dark), the onus of our safety continues to lie with us. And if you track the recent media coverage of sexual violence against women in Delhi, it seems like we’re not doing a very good job of protecting ourselves.
Big bad city: You are still your own best protector here. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Of course, the second we peek out from behind our armour, we get blamed (for our late hours, our new-found courage to venture further out of our homes, our way of dressing, our easier relationships with men). What else can you expect, they say, when you’re a foot soldier in that eternal clash of civilizations—New India vs Old India.
It’s a neat enough analysis—especially when the victim is a call centre employee—but it doesn’t explain so many instances of sexual violence against Indian women (the high incidence of incest rape, for example). Earlier this week, a woman who was raped by an older relative ran out of his home and hailed a taxi to drive her to safety. The taxi driver and his two friends raped her again. Which India should you hold responsible here? Dehumanized India existed then and continues to thrive now.
“Sexual violence is part of Old India and New India,” says Jagori’s Kalpana Viswanath. Last year, a study by this women’s organization found that women of all classes deal with sexual harassment in Delhi. Harassment occurs during all hours of the day, in crowded and secluded spaces. Forty-five per cent of women had experienced being stalked. Only 0.8% of women said they reported harassment to the police. Some 58% said they did not even consider approaching the police as they believed a) the police wouldn’t do anything, b) the police would just fill in the paperwork, and c) the police would blame them.
Additional deputy commissioner of police Suman Nalwa, who runs the special cell for women and children at Nanakpura in south Delhi, says this city’s record of 47% rapes resulting in conviction is better than the sub-30% national average. Nalwa says the women she interacts with tell her that they find it difficult to articulate sexual harassment to the city’s mostly male policemen (though, she points out, after the Commonwealth Games, Delhi’s 6% female police force is higher than the national 3% average).
So who’s responsible for the fact that women don’t feel safe in Delhi?
The migrants who continue to pack north-east Delhi, the area with the highest population density, according to the recently released census? The abysmal conviction rates that allow half the city’s rapists to get away? Of course, the increased visibility of and access to women in public spaces is a factor. After all Delhi, unlike Mumbai, doesn’t have a very long and vibrant history of working women, says Viswanath. The city’s spread out topography that makes it difficult to police? The uncaring citizens who don’t react even when a crime is committed in their midst? Jagori’s survey found that 54% of women and 69% of men preferred not to get involved when they saw someone being harassed. “We need a better sense of ownership of the city so people respond,” says Viswanath.
Or should we just blame ourselves? If we feel so strongly that Delhi doesn’t police its streets effectively, why don’t we do something about it? “The safety of women is never an election issue,” says Nalwa. Most of us don’t even know how much the government spends to keep women safe, she adds. Maybe it’s time to take this debate to Jantar Mantar.
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