We are not India’s daughters, proclaim women as their voices against sexual abuse and violence remain unheard

In the light of the horrifying gangrape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad, women across India are asking the same question – where is the justice?

6th Dec 2019
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“Stop calling us India’s daughters.”

No statement, perhaps as bold as this, portrays how women in India are feeling right now, in light of the horrific gangrape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad. 

A woman, like you and I, returning after a day’s work at around 8 pm – dressed “moderately” according to society’s standards, and yet what remained were her charred remains.

No amount of calling this incident ‘Nirbhaya 2’ is going to put the spotlight on the magnitude of the larger problem. 

There is anger. There is outrage. But where is the justice? Where is the change?

women's safety

When I was 20 in the mid-90s in small-town Kerala, I would use my large handbag to cover my chest and make a quick dash from the bus-stop to my home every single evening.

It’s 2019 and nothing has changed. I hesitate to take night flights because of the long distance between the airport and Bengaluru City. I prefer to be in a crowd even if I am claustrophobic. My heart races every time I have to take a train at night.

Only yesterday, a 23-year-old woman from Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, who had filed a rape case against two men from her village this March, was set on fire by five men as she was heading to a local court for a hearing of her case. Two of them were the accused in the rape case – one had run away from custody and the other was out on bail. 

Bleak as it may be, it does seem like nothing’s going to change. At least, not in my lifetime.

Time and again, we keep hearing how safety remains the topmost concern for women in the country. 

However, as the advisory issued by the Police Commissioner of Hyderabad after the horrific incident last week stated, the onus of safety lies solely on us – the women.

From “Always wait in crowded and in illuminated areas,” to “Avoid isolated areas.”

One of the points read, “If there is no person visible around, you should walk to the nearest shop, commercial unit and stand very close to it so moving traffic can easily observe you.”

Social media erupted with questions of “Why not ask men not to rape”.

The numbers don't lie

While outrage on social media platforms lasts only as long as the next news cycle, it’s important to understand that the feelings of hopelessness among women across the country remain deeply ingrained.

According to a 2019 Neta App survey, 42 percent of Indian women feel ‘unsafe’ in their surroundings, and 78 percent feel that authorities are not taking enough measures to ensure the safety of women in India.

About 43 percent revealed that they have faced an incident where their safety was undermined. The states where women feel the most unsafe are Haryana (83 percent), Arunachal Pradesh (68 percent), and Chhattisgarh (62 percent).

On the other hand, the states where women feel the safest are Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, and Kerala. Among metros, Delhi was the worst performer with 56 percent women feeling unsafe. It was followed by Kolkata (32 percent), Mumbai (27 percent), and Chennai (10 percent).

The truth is out there – in numbers, in incidents of sexual abuse, molestation, and growing violence against women. There are voices being raised too.

The voices may come from different parts of the country and diverse age groups, but the anger is the common thread running through them all. Where are the safe places, sensitive law enforcers, a fair justice system, and better men?

Unheard voices

HerStory spoke to women across the country to understand their anger. These voices need to be heard if women’s safety is indeed a priority for lawmakers and a suitable correction course be enforced.

“There were days during my undergraduate course, where I would walk near empty streets in a posh locality in Bengaluru alone at 10 pm. Somehow, I was fine. I walked with my earphones in and some good music for company. A few days back, a few friends of mine and I decided to get some tea at 9 pm in a relatively busy area near my campus, and ended up receiving looks that instantly put me on guard. Comments on how women are dressing in short clothes while men are dressing decently these days, followed by sneers, is not exactly comforting for us. In the Hyderabad case, she went back home every day, she was not wearing ‘provocative clothes’, and still ended up burnt. I am away from home, now extremely conscious about how I look and I feel unsafe when I step out for tea where not one man or woman stood up for us when this happened. I am afraid to speak out, I don't want to be a target. I want to go home as soon as my course is done. I want to drink my tea without worrying if I'll be back home safe.”

– Supriya Rangarajan, 22, student

“Safety hinders my freedom. If I am out late, I am worried about my parents, my sister, and the rest of my loved ones worrying about me. Taking into consideration what happened in Hyderabad, I would not want to meet the same or similar fate. As much as I love India, I would not want to be India’s Daughter.”

– Milounee Purohit, 23, student

“As a woman, my biggest baggage is my body. The burden of safeguarding my body takes a toll. I don’t feel safe inside or outside the house. I am cautious always, even in the middle of the night as I wake up to use the washroom. All my senses are alert when I'm alone on the road, but that doesn't mean I feel safe in a crowded street. Invisible hands extend towards my body, shoving me, followed by ‘Oh, sorry’, patronising comments. I want to scream – ‘Please behave as if I don't exist. Why don't you watch the traffic signal, smell the garbage on the street, or extend your hand to the old man unable to cross the road?’ With each incident of attack on women, I panic more.”

– Vidhya CK, 45, independent journalist

“The fact that it is past 6 pm right now and I just got a call from my father saying my mum is worried and to send her a text when I leave the University, shows you the kind of panic and fear in the minds of people, especially women. Earlier, I used to brush off her concerns, thinking that she should get used to me travelling alone. But, now I understand the fear because I am afraid myself. I would love to go out at night, feel free with my choices as the men are. I am sad that I am not ‘safe as my brother is’.”

– Apoorva, 21, student

“I work on the night shift and most of the time, I leave my office at 2 am. Though I am dropped home in the comfort of an office cab, I am still scared. I have to travel through dark, deserted stretches of roads every night. What if someone waylaid the car and assaulted me? The same goes for my outstation trips. I make sure I am always back home on an early flight. I am looking over my shoulder every time I travel. This country will never be safe for women.”

– Anuradha, 33, IT analyst

“I am a domestic help who works until 10 pm, cooking for various families. I stay far away from the locality I work. Every day, I take the bus and then walk home praying I do not get assaulted or raped. Every catcall I encounter brings a chill down my spine. I wrap my saree tightly around my shoulders and try to be as inconspicuous as possible. The day I don’t feel fear is the day I will completely feel safe.”

Radha, 35, domestic help

We have to be responsible for our own safety

We have cities with all-women patrolling squads, apps to help us in times of distress or maps that pin down sexual-harassment prone areas, helplines to all in danger. But the real question is that how many of these are accessible to every woman?

ElsaMarie D’Silva, Founder and CEO of Safecity, says, “Women must make it a point to be situationally aware – know your rights, be alert, and understand what could go wrong so that you have a Plan B. It is unfortunate that we have to be responsible for our own safety. It is even more important to look out for each other and be an active bystander to prevent sexual violence. Do not be afraid to speak up, seek help, and demand accountability.”

But in the long run, women’s safety is not the concern of women alone, says Kirthi Jayakumar, Founder of Red Elephant Foundation, which works towards gender equality through diverse media.

She says, “We are always focussing on what a woman must do to look out for her safety. Instead, I'm using this space to speak to the ecosystem at large. Be a part of the community by not being problematic, by not harming, and by not acting out of entitlement.”

Kirthi emphasises, “A woman (cis, trans) walking on the street is not asking for it. She is accessing a public space that is well within her right to. Not being a direct part of the problem is not enough.”

She adds that it is equally important to strive to be a part of the solution. “Be active bystanders, watch out and be vigilant and intervene – simple techniques like distracting, delaying, disruption, and diversion can work wonders.”

The world is only as safe for women as the community around them makes it. It is not on women to watch out for their safety while enjoying their right to live. It is the duty of the world around women to create an environment where they can thrive instead of watching over their shoulder all the time,” says Kirthi.

While the fear may not subside, building confidence through the right tools, respecting each other’s choices, understanding the right of consent, and not just speak but act when difficult situations arise may lessen atrocities towards women to some extent.

As ElsaMarie says, “If each of us did our bit, we would be able to end the horrific violence against women and girls, and make the world a happier, more equal, and inclusive space for all.”

(With inputs from Tanvi Dubey)

(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)

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