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If it’s Mumbai one year, it’s Delhi the next, and sometimes it’s both together. New Year’s eve or Holi, marketplace or regular work commute, the first truth about public spaces in India is the invisible board that reads: Women, enter at your own risk.

Did a mass molestation take place on the streets of Bengaluru on the night of 31 December? Official denials notwithstanding, the second truth about public spaces is this: When men get together to have a good time, the definition of enjoyment very often includes the right to grope women.

Not all men, true. But equally true is that every single woman seems to have a story. There is nothing as democratically distributed or universally experienced, generation after generation, year after year, decade after decade as the public sexual assault of women. We listen as the stories come tumbling out, summoning submerged memories and ongoing humiliations—the man who masturbates on the adjoining seat late at night on the chair car train; the laughing schoolboys who reach out and grab; the anonymous hand in a crowded marketplace.

Unsurprisingly, there will always be men who scoff: quit exaggerating. Others will ask, why was she out? Still others (Karnataka home minister G. Parameshwara and Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi) will lament “western" lifestyles. The best among men will empathize. But not one can ever actually know the routine sexual assault that women face every day in public spaces—parks, buses, metros, streets, markets. We develop coping mechanisms. Some carry a “safety" safety pin for bus commutes. In Delhi, newspapers report, women will now be allowed to carry small knives in metro trains. We learn to never make eye contact. We have loud and imaginary conversations on our phones. We walk hunched, arms protectively wrapped around our chests. And, yes, some of us will shout and fight back, but faced with large crowds of marauding men, most of us will prudently stay silent.

Apart from the obvious fact that denying women safe and equal access to public spaces violates the most basic constitutional guarantees of equality and dignity, this denial also has social and economic implications. Women are less likely to join the workforce and less likely to seek job opportunities far away from home. They are more likely to opt out of jobs when household incomes improve—female labour force participation actually declined during the post-liberalization years. Women are less likely to participate in public life, either at rallies or at protest movements. They are simply lesser citizens.

What is the solution—because there has to be one. You cannot systemically subject half this country’s citizens to repeated and sustained assault. So here are my suggestions:

We have, post the December 2012 protests, tougher laws but abysmal conviction rates. Data journalism website IndiaSpend estimates that nationally, only 10% of registered sexual assault cases end in conviction (in Karnataka it’s 1.3%). So, right off the top of the list, we need faster convictions, and exemplary punishment. We need less public apathy—speak up when you see a woman being assaulted in a bus or stalked in a park.

We have to move away from 24-hour social media outrage cycles and direct our intolerance to lawmakers who demand that women must be “protected" because they are our mothers, sisters, etc. Access to public spaces is a right, not a protection. To see it as protection is misogyny.

We need mindset change through a concerted effort. Excise sexism from textbooks. Build public opinion against movies that portray stalking as the sure-shot way to the heroine’s heart. Run campaigns using athletes like Virat Kohli who have already spoken up against the recent Bengaluru incident. No means no, boss. And only sickos grope.

But more than anything else, we, as women simply need to reclaim the spaces we’ve ceded. Don’t cross the line, we’ve been told since we were children. Yet, the more we stay away, the more space we create for hooligans. And the more women you see out and about, the more “normal" that image will be.

On Saturday, Sandhya Mendonca of the SHE Collective Forum invited women to join her at Cubbon Park, Bengaluru. For three hours, 50 women (and a few men), including a group of women taxi drivers, swapped stories, read poetry, and made connections. Over the next few weeks, other groups too plan to gather in parks in other cities, doing what men take for granted—time out in a public space.

Sometimes, the first step to change can be as simple as taking a walk in the park.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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