Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Opinion | What do Indian women give up for safety?

Women's daily lives are watched, chaperoned, hidden, and constantly manipulated and curtailed just for safety

A recent Thomson Reuters poll that dubbed India the most dangerous place in the world for women created quite a stir. The initial political posturing was predictable, with the opposition lamenting India’s rise in the rankings and the government criticizing the poll methodology. Comparing the data on reported rapes to other countries shows India in far better light. Believers of the poll supported its methodology (surveying 548 experts on healthcare, discrimination, cultural traditions, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking) and pointed to the unreliability of crime data and the under-reporting in sexual assault cases in India.

Somewhere in this numbers game, the real question of women’s safety got lost.

India’s rape numbers are both an over and an underestimation of the real situation. The under-reporting is fairly well known. The environment in which sexual crimes are investigated is often hostile to victims of sexual violence. Add to this the typical social conceptions of shame and victim-blaming, and only a fraction of the crimes committed are reported.

Matters can be worse in rural areas, especially for Dalit women, who face sexual violence within a caste stranglehold. At the same time, there is also an over-reporting of the number of rapes as spurious rape allegations are filed by enraged family members, trying to punish consensual sex by inter-caste or inter-religious couples.

Even with the spurious cases, these numbers are the tip of the iceberg. The bigger problem is that rape numbers cannot possibly capture the extent of sexual violence in India, because much of sexual violence happens within the confines of marriage, and marital rape is not a crime. Also, the rape numbers don’t capture other kinds of violence against women—non-sexual assault, stalking, groping and verbal harassment in public spaces. The focus on the number of rapes reported neither helps uncover the problem of safety, nor provides the solution. It is simply one kind of data, and its rise or decline alone does not establish danger or safety perceived by women.

The question is not whether India is the most dangerous because of the number of reported rapes or the horrific manner in which these crimes were perpetrated (from recent memory in Kathua and Chennai). The question is also not about the official numbers to measure sexual violence, and whether there is over- or under-reporting. As an economist, I would argue that the real question is: What do women give up on a daily basis to feel safe in India? What is the cost of going about their daily lives, and navigating public spaces, and who is paying the price?

To answer these questions, we need to dig deeper than just the number of reported rapes.

One excellent and creative study by Girija Borker, a doctoral student at Brown University, measures the effect of street harassment by studying the travel routes of 4,000 students in Delhi University. She finds that women are willing to choose a college in the bottom half of the quality distribution over a college in the top quintile for a travel route that is perceived to be safer. Alternatively, women are willing to spend an additional 40 minutes in travel time, relative to men, for a safer route, or are willing to spend an additional 18,800 per year, relative to men, for a safer route. This has implications on the cost of a college education, the building of human capital, a decline in post-college salaries and lifetime earnings, and also the set of choices available to women post college.

If women are taking on these costs for greater safety to just attend college, there is nothing to suggest that this pattern stops after college. Women who participate in the workforce must incur high costs to simply get to work and return safely. Firms are careful, if not reluctant, to hire women in jobs in remote areas or jobs with late shifts. Families are even more reluctant to allow the women to work in these jobs.

For those who are privileged and work in the formal sector for large firms, an entire political economy of security firms, car services, trusted drivers and chaperones has emerged. For women in non-urban, non-elite, or informal settings, the perceived lack of safety is one of the reasons of the low and declining participation in the labour force.

The Borker study, using navigation and safety applications, and relying on urban college-going women, is exposing the problem for the most privileged among us. Matters are quite obviously much worse for most women in India. Their choices are much more severely curtailed. It starts with keeping post-pubescent girls from going to schools in rural areas. Women in rural areas are known to take much longer routes to complete their daily chores to avoid unsafe areas. Where open defecation is prevalent, women are more vulnerable to sexual assault. They often perform, what is a very private activity, in groups, just to stay safe. In fact, one of the more successful public awareness campaigns to eliminate open defecation relies on encouraging men to build toilets at home to “protect" the women in the house. Women’s daily lives are watched, chaperoned, hidden, and constantly manipulated and curtailed just for safety.

So, the question is not whether India is dangerous because of the shockingly high number of rapes. The question to really consider is: What are the costs incurred by women to stay safe while going about the most basic tasks of their daily lives?

Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York, and a fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute, New York University School of Law.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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