Home / Politics / Policy /  Not much has changed for women in public spaces

New Delhi: Almost a year after the incident, memories of the spontaneous street protests that erupted in Delhi after the gang-rape of a young student are still vivid. The victim didn’t survive, but the protests shook the establishment, brought women’s safety to the centre of political debate and led to tougher laws against sexual assault.

Abhiruchi Ranjan, a 26-year-old student of political studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recalls the protests that reached the centre of national power, Raisina Hill, as the victim battled for life in hospital and was flown for treatment to Singapore, where she eventually died of the injuries inflicted on her by the six men, including a juvenile.

“When I look back, I feel there was absolutely so much outrage at that time that we had this opportunity to channelize all our resentment against the system and speak up against what was wrong," says Ranjan.

The central and Delhi governments faced unprecedented public outrage in the days after the gang-rape on a moving bus in the capital. The police tried to disperse the protesters with water cannon and tear gas, but their action only fuelled public fury, prompting appeals for calm from Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Experts and sociologists say the streets protests against the gang-rape and campaign for tougher punishment that followed put the issue of women’s safety at forefront—both in public debate and in the family space.

“One barometer of change is speaking up. No one will take things lying down... But have the incidents gone down? No, I don’t think so," said Akhila Sivadas, executive director at the Centre for Advocacy and Research, which works among marginalized communities.

Stirred by the magnitude of public outrage, the government was quick to appoint a committee headed by former chief justice of India J.S. Verma to suggest change in the legal regime to deal with crimes against women.

A new Act followed that not only introduced new offences like stalking, but also made changes to make the criminal justice system more accessible to women. The definition of rape was broadened to include acts beyond peno-vaginal penetration. Acid attacks were included as an offence warranting self defence, even to the extent of causing the offender’s death.

But for some who participated in the protests last year, nothing has changed for women in the public spaces they inhabit.

“Having lived in Delhi all my life, it was overwhelming to see people come out and protest and it was definitely one of our watershed movements," Rashi Mehra, a 26-year-old woman, who works with children and women in slums, said. “But what after that? There is no gender perspective to either our cities or to our public transport. There are no street lights but do you go out and protest even for something like that."

After the gang-rape, questions were raised about how women-friendly Indian cities are in terms of public spaces and transport. The Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre, or Uttipec, drew up a pilot plan to prepare a micro-level project involving other city planning and engineering agencies, including municipal corporations, to suggest measures to make these areas safer for women.

Janaki Abraham, an associate professor at the department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics, said that a lot of change in societal attitudes should be credited to the youth.

“The main thing is that young people are far more assertive and they recognize the space that is opening up," she said.

Isolated cases of violence do act as trigger points for public outrage, according to Abraham. “The protests had to do with the nature of the case also. It was almost like it became a tipping point for people to say that it was enough and it got linked with people coming on the streets," she said.

Mehra admits that the incident brought women’s issues to the forefront of public debate. Yet, she says that she continues to be worried about her own safety while travelling after dark. “It is Delhi and one always has to be cautious," she says.

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