Safety. Because in their safety lies their freedom. And, as India celebrates its 73rd year of independence, its women continue their struggle to be free.

Public safety has different meanings for men and women in India. Women are far more likely to experience verbal and physical harassment, stalking, molestation, assault, sexual assault and rape compared to men. While India has a high incidence of violence and sexual assault within the household, much of this plays out in public spaces. On streets, in buses, schools, offices and parks, and even police stations and hospitals. Sexual harassment and violence against women are so rampant that society does not even consider stalking or groping or verbal harassment to be serious problems. The usual reaction is the thought that thankfully it wasn’t sexual assault, or worse, rape, and then how to change one’s daily routine to avoid the perpetrators.

A woman’s clock is less about the time of day and night, and more about the times that are “safe" and “unsafe." While the GPS informs us of the shortest or fastest route, the Indian woman has her own GPS system: whether roads are well-lit or dark, bustling or deserted, whether there are signals or not, are underpasses hiding lurkers, or are there continuous freeways, whether a field may be cut across or not—in short, whether spaces are navigable or unsafe. Rural women also need to bear in mind the security of their workspace in the fields and the areas they use for access to water or open defecation.

Consequently, women in India don’t occupy the same physical spaces as men. And when they do, it is at a huge cost. In her study of street harassment in Delhi, Girija Borker at the World Bank found that women are willing to choose a lower-quality college for a travel route that is perceived to be safer. Alternatively, women are willing to spend, relative to men, an additional 40 minutes on travel time daily or an additional 18,800 per year, for a safer route. These women are among the most privileged, gaining a college education in a large metropolis. For the less privileged, these options don’t exist.

Because of this, women watch their world shrink. Or in many cases, have never known an un-shrunk world. Some are asked to stop going to school when they hit puberty, and their choice set becomes extremely small. Others still are asked to change their school based on proximity to home, or safe travel routes, instead of educational outcomes. Even where women are allowed to go to college, it must be near their home, during safe hours, and should preferably be all-girls’ colleges. Even older women drop out of the workforce just to keep their daughters safe at home until they are married. Women’s spaces, and therefore actions, are predefined, with little room for improvization or spontaneity.

Women with financial means are constantly chaperoned, watched and guarded as they go to school or work, or to socialize. For those who are less economically and socially privileged, who cannot afford 24-hour protection from family and staff, it usually means a world restricted to a small physical and social circle. For the least privileged, it means taking a risk with their physical safety and well-being while attempting to complete the most ordinary of tasks.

Women don’t want special treatment, freebies and subsidies, free transportation, or even exclusive spaces. Women just want the rule of law to prevail, so that they can feel safe. I don’t claim to represent all Indian women. I am cognizant of my enormous privilege as I am an educated, working, financially independent and secure woman. The fact that I don’t live in India makes me even less likely to experience these daily stresses imposed on Indian women. But I feel like I can speak for women because every woman in India, irrespective of caste, income, education, social status, age, privilege and religion, has felt unsafe in the most ordinary and mundane situations, or has secured her safety at an enormous personal cost. Because those who are leering at and groping and following women in public spaces don’t seem to discriminate on the basis of caste, income, education, social status, age, privilege or religion. They grope and stalk because they can, with impunity. Mostly likely, the woman will just walk away. It will almost certainly go unreported and unpunished.

To engage with the world, and truly live their lives, Indian women want public safety and for the government to enforce the rule of law. This is largely missing in India, given the weak capacity of the state, especially in the area of law enforcement. India has less than half the United Nations’ recommended police-to-citizen ratio. Given the enormous regulatory burden placed on its police, India needs to triple its police force. The same is true for the number of police stations, courts and judges.

Without the requisite enforcement, India’s legal rules do not deter crimes against women. And because the legal system is so slow and so cumbersome to navigate, with little hope of justice, most crimes of this nature go unreported. The less costly option for women is to hide, by changing their travel routes, schools, jobs, etc., rather than engaging with the legal system to punish the perpetrators. Rule of law and public law enforcement is important for society at large, but has the most impact on women.

For women, safety is instrumental to gaining freedom. Even freedom is instrumental. Women want freedom to become the women they want to become.

Shruti Rajagopalan is assistant professor at Purchase College, State University of New York.

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