Are India's Cities Any More Safe Today for Women and Girls?

Jun 09, 2014 | Updated Aug 09, 2014
NOAH SEELAM via Getty Images

Recently, a journalist called India's politics "too violent for women," citing the fact that only eight percent of last month's electoral candidates were women. Women's rights advocates acknowledged that the threat of rape and harassment likely contributed to women staying out of politics.

The sad truth is that the political sphere is just one of the many places in India that women find dangerous. Just last week, we heard news that two young girls in a rural village were gang-raped then hanged from a tree. Another news story reported that four 16 to 17-year-old girls were attacked and sexually assaulted in a rural village in Haryana State. These brutal assaults are just two that made the headlines in a week's time.

Girls in villages across India are at risk of sexual assault. And India's cities aren't any safer for women and girls.

In late 2012, shortly before the now-infamous fatal gang rape of the New Delhi woman who was riding a bus with her fiancé, ICRW conducted a study to understand just how safe -- or unsafe -- Delhi's women and girls felt in the city's public spaces. Nearly two years later, ICRW is striving to go back to see what, if anything, has improved or changed in women and girls' feeling about safety in public spaces.

What we found back in 2012, simply by asking men and women to share their experience, was eye opening.

From the streets to bus stops, to crowded market places, women surveyed told us that they don't feel safe in public, and half of men surveyed told us that they, at some point, have engaged in sexual aggression, with many respondents saying that women are ultimately responsible if they are sexually harassed or assaulted.

Again, this research was collected weeks before the gang rape, indicating that Delhi's women and girls were already well aware that the public spaces which they pass through every day were unsafe -- and that an attack that would rock India and catch the world's attention was, unfortunately, likely to happen sooner rather than later.

When surveyed, only five percent of respondents told our researchers that they feel "safe" or "very safe" in New Delhi's public spaces. And 73 percent of respondents said that women and girls face sexual aggression in their own neighborhoods. Additionally, 63 percent of women said they are fearful when they go out after dark, and more than 20 percent say they avoid going outside alone altogether, for fear of violence. That's one in every five women who often choose not to engage in public life because they fear for their safety.

Research shows that both fear and actual experience of sexual violence in the public realm have a profound impact on women and girls' daily routines, lifestyle and their emotional and physical health.

Since the world's attention turned to India after this horrific attack in 2012, the government has taken some important steps to combat violence against women. A month after the attack, the Verma Commission made recommendations to change India's criminal law code to provide for quicker trials and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women. This was seen as an important step to acknowledge that broader approaches were needed to combat sexual violence and that governments need to take seriously any attack on women and also to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable for their crimes.

We know that even before the attack in Delhi in December of 2012, women and girls felt unsafe. What we don't know is whether or not actions by the Indian government, including recommendations by the Verma Commission, have actually made a difference in the lives of India's women and girls. Do women and girls feel safer? Are perpetrators of sexual violence held accountable? Or is justice languishing in courtrooms and police stations while women continue to fear for their safety every time they step out of their homes?

With the world watching, Indian officials promised to take important steps to tackle this massive problem affecting women in India's cities, rural villages, schools, homes and on public transportation. They must be held accountable for promises they have made to keep women and girls safe. And the global community must ensure the steps that the Indian government has taken are actually working to keep streets, schools, bus stops and any other public space safe and free from violence.

So much energy has gone into policy reform, judicial review, criminal process and sentencing of the perpetrators, media attention and citizen action campaigns. Repeating the survey will allow ICRW to ascertain the extent of change in conditions for women and girls in Delhi given that enormous effort.New research will inform what actions must be taken to secure public spaces, which laws and policies must be enforced to combat sexual violence, and how communities can work together to make sure that attacks like the one in 2012 never happen again.

For more information on ICRW and how you can help combat violence against women and girls in India's cities, communities and homes please visit here.