Promises of safety, but Delhi women still walkin fear

Crikey (16 March 2013)

Three months after the notorious gang-rape on a bus in Delhi, women are not heartened by the government’s safety measures, writes India-based freelance journalist Alys Francis.

Nearly three months after Delhi was rocked by the brutal gang r-pe of a 23-year-old woman, the state’s top politician is celebrating International Woman’s Day by sending three motorised floats out into the city, complete with theatrical performers, to tout the government’s new female-friendly safety measures. But locals don’t feel comforted.

“It’s not safe at all — I carry a pepper spray my boyfriend bought for me,” Megha Gupta, a 24-yearold apprentice chef from south-east Delhi, toldCrikey. “Just two weeks after that r-pe happened my boyfriend saved another girl from getting r-ped — that wasn’t in the papers. She was coming back from a party and some guy followed her and groped her.”

Gupta says despite the government’s initiatives Delhi women had “given up hope”. “The best thing to do is leave the city. Move somewhere safer like Bangalore, down south,” she said.

Namrata Bhavya and Bharta Toi, 23 and 28 from South Delhi, say they are too afraid to travel on public transport or go walking after 8pm. The government and police promised a raft of initiatives in the wake of the December 16 gang r-pe, which sparked protests across the city and brought the plight of Delhi women to the world’s attention. The new measures include: an increase in phone help lines, school bus drivers to receive police checks, government buses be fitted with CCTV and GPS, clubs to shut at 1am, police to identify
and patrol unsafe areas, a female-manned help desk for women at all police stations, a recruitment drive for female officers, with two to be present at each station at night, and changes to how complaints are registered with police to make it easier for women.

The government also promised five fast-track courts to deal with s-x crimes — four of which are now functional — and to make a priority of implementing the independent Justice Verma Committee’s recommendations for dealing with crimes against women. The Finance Minister even recently announced plans for the country’s first all-women bank, due to start operating in November. Despite all this, the number of reported r-pes leapt 124% for the first two months of 2013 to 247, from 110 last year, prompting the Hindustan Times to report the city is “still not safe for women” the day before International Women’s Day. Two cases that allegedly took place this Monday include that
of a 19-year-old who was allegedly abducted and gang r-ped by three men after she had flagged down a rickshaw and a 15-year-old who said she was gang r-ped by four men who had abducted her from near her home.

Police say the increased numbers are due to an increase in reporting, not in the number of incidents.

“… this entire incident has caused a paradigm shift. Girls are talking about their rights …”

A Delhi crime reporter who declined to give her name due to company policy told Crikey that despite “the government proposing several measures, almost every day there at least on an average five r-pes in the city that we report, and many that go unreported”. She says outrage after the gang r-pe “instilled fear” in Delhi’s police force. “They now make it a point to register complaints, unlike before when they would encourage alleged victims to compromise with their attacker or not lodge a complaint.”

She says while police sensitisation courses appear to be working, other measures have been less successful, such as turning Delhi Police Special Commissioner Sudhir Yadav’s mobile number into a help line for women. Yadav received 2000 calls in 45 days after the number went live on December 25, including, according to sources, some from people enquiring about his opinion on whether India would beat Australia in the cricket.

The reporter also said the government was not promoting its initiatives enough: “It remains in that limited circle of the educated lot who read the paper in the morning — it’s the lower middle class who need to know.”

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s travelling theatrical performers are an attempt to address that disparity and spread knowledge.

Ambitabh Kumar, spokesman for the Centre for Social Research, notes the recent budget proposed Rs.1000 crores for a fund to support women-centric plans — but with 655 districts in the country, that would be sliced into only about 1.5 crores for each district. He also questions the effectiveness of the fast-track courts, pointing out the December 16 r-pe case, which was being tried in one such court, had been “ongoing since January now, which questions the ‘fast’ status”.

On the street, local people are pessimistic about whether the changes will have any effect. Robert, 38 from South Delhi, says only the “upper-middle class” have learnt from the bus r-pe incident. “The lower class, the middle lower, have a lot of anger and a lot of frustration in them. They’re risk-takers and they don’t be bothered by headlines. Everyone thinks they can get away with things here,” he said.

But Puja Trisal, general manager for Smile Foundation, a charity dedicated to empowering women, believes the case was a turning point and people’s attitudes are changing: “R-pe per se has always been looked at with a stigma, and people tended to blame the victim, but this entire incident has caused a paradigm shift. Girls are talking about their rights, saying it’s equally my right to be out at 10 or whenever in the evening. And this entire movement was equally supported by men, which is
very, very heartwarming,