WOMEN’S SAFETY – A LONG WAY OFF?
I was walking home from the grocery store in my neighbourhood of R.A Puram the other day, when the driver of a passing rickshaw stuck out his tongue and made an obscene gesture at me. I was stunned. For less than a second though, after which I started laughing, highly amused. I suppose I should have been offended. But it happens so often that I have learnt to ignore it and laugh at it, indirectly allowing it to persist, not just with me but with scores of other women in the city.
I could have given him a fitting answer, an obscene gesture of my own. But the thought process that has been ingrained into every woman’s head kicked in:
‘ Will he get provoked?’
‘What if he turns around and tries something worse?’
‘What if he thinks it’s an invitation?’
So we feel it’s best if we ignore it. Retaliating is not an option. Because our society has been engineered to somehow point a finger at us whatever be the reason. So we ignore it. And so it exists and incidents grow in number and magnitude. And here we are, utterly incapable of enjoying a routine trip to the grocery store without getting eve-teased, stared or leered at, or worse, stalked or molested.
Haven’t we heard numerous stories from our friends, sisters and mothers about the times they used to carry safety pins and open pens on buses so they could poke any guy who touched them inappropriately? Or the time they told off the boys standing beside their bikes as they went past them?
These are stories we live with everyday, stories of scores of girls who travel by public buses and trains:
‘A guy tried to touch me in the bus, I called for the conductor and he told me to get off if the guy was bothering me.’
‘A man kept eyeing me throughout when I was waiting in line to buy a movie ticket. When the show got over, he was waiting for me with two of his friends outside on bikes and followed me home, I got into the nearest shop and called my father who came and picked me up.’
‘ I was molested when I fell asleep on the bus home.’
Why do we let these stories happen? Why do our parents and guardians tell us to ignore eve-teasing, cover ourselves up or even ask us to take a longer route so we can avoid these miscreants? Shouldn’t we fight? How can we make the daily commute for a woman in this city safer and more pleasant?
Dr. Sarayu, who works long hours at a leading hospital in the city, finds it difficult to travel back during late nights and wee hours of the morning even though she is on her bike or in a taxi. Her experiences range from random guys following her to drunk taxi drivers. She says the police patrol the main areas but is not confident whether she will get assistance on short notice if needed. She carries a self-made spray containing hospital alcohol, just in case she needs to use it.
It also does not help that most of the roads do not have proper lighting, not even the main roads. Many of the women that I spoke to felt that better street lighting would definitely make a difference.
“Nations are more successful when their women are successful” said US President Barack Obama. If we as Chennai Citizens need to make our cities and country successful, then we need to remove the basic stumbling block in women’s growth, which is safety and security.
A recurring theme in most conversations on women’s safety these days is self-defence. A few friends at a party were all for carrying mace and even Taser guns. A preliminary search shows that it is unclear if Tasers are legal in India. Even if they were, and available easily, using one is not child’s play. But mace or pepper spray is another story.
Google keyword trends show that searches for ‘pepper spray’ have increased exponentially in the past few years. However, it is still not very commonly available and is not something you can pick up at a neighbourhood grocery store. Why has that not happened yet? A few stores such as Health & Glow do stock up, but these are clearly not available to all economic demographics.
We also need to send out the message that pepper spray can be made at home. Flyers and posters showing the ingredients and the instructions can be distributed widely, at bus stops, train stations, tea shops, malls, everywhere. Women need to know that they can defend themselves effectively.
The Tamil Nadu police women’s helpline number is 1091, but ask any working woman or teenager and she will give you a blank stare. For example, my local beauty salon has many girls who take buses and trains to their homes which are usually at least an hour away. One of them, Valli, has to take two buses to reach her home. She leaves at 8 in the evening and reaches home only at 10. I ask her if she is aware of the helpline numbers and she tells me no she doesn’t, but follows up with a very pertinent question: ‘Even if I did call the number, would I get timely help?’ After repeated requests, the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC, Chennai) has increased the number of Women’s Special buses that are operated in the city during peak time. The call for them to be extended to non-peak and late hours is also gathering steam, as that is when women are targeted. Greater Chennai Police has special ‘All Women’ Police stations across the city to make law enforcement agencies more women friendly.
After a rise in crimes in many parts of India on women, The Government of India has decided that no mobile can be sold in the country without an in-built panic button and global positioning system (GPS) from January 1, 2017, and January 1, 2018, respectively.
In a country where atrocities against women are an everyday, every-minute occurrence, the need to protect and equip our women cannot be stressed on enough. More patrolling, helplines that answer, self- defence classes, easy availability and affordability of pepper spray are just a few examples.
More importantly, a general shift in attitude among the people is what is required. There is a disconnect between fellow citizens in most cities and although the reasons are many, one cannot dissect each one, and it is more critical to focus on changing it.
Swathi was an engineer who was working with an MNC. She took a train from Nungambakkam every day to her place of work. She was a living, breathing soul with her own dreams and aspirations. She had a father who had just retired from service and most likely cherished dropping his daughter off at the station. She had a sister who doted on her. She had friends who would later miss her smile the most. She was brutally hacked to death one morning by a stalker who could not take ‘no’ for an answer. She screamed and tried to get away from her killer. but he simply finished the job and ran away.
There were no CCTV cameras in the station and nobody could find him. He was free for one whole week before he was apprehended. Could this have been prevented? Perhaps yes, if passersby had taken a minute to look and maybe run to her aid, distract and dissuade the man who did this to her. Or they could at least have paid some respect to her lifeless body when she passed away. But reality saw none of this.
Swathi is already receding from our memory. Let us not wait for another ‘Swathi’ to happen for us to change.