Ten years after the Nirbhaya gang-rape, lack of public safety is still affecting women’s freedom and job opportunities.
Tanisha Kannan was an intern at India Today when it happened. It was Karnataka Rajyostav—Nov. 1, 2019. She had been called in to work on an assignment in the afternoon and was waiting for an auto to get to the metro station. A car pulled up next to her and the driver asked her for directions. He kept insisting she get in with him to “show him the way” and began to ask intrusive questions.
“I got scared and ran back inside the office. I could see him from the window, he waited for half an hour before finally leaving,” she said. She noted down the number of the car and called her father to pick her up. When she went to the police, they advised her to travel with her father or brother.
“It was 3:00 in the afternoon on Richmond Road. It is not supposed to be dangerous. And why should my father have to drop me and pick me up? It’s not practical,” she said. She could not complete the internship.
Tanisha’s story is echoed by several women. Seema, 25, once stayed home from work for two weeks because she was groped on the way. She lost one week’s bonus and missed the opportunity of getting a major project. Vidya (name changed), 23, was followed by a man when she was walking to work in J. P. Nagar. Her father made her quit her job.
For the past five years, Bangalore has seen the third-highest rate of crimes against women in the country. Today, the city has a low workforce participation rate among women, with just 24 percent women working outside the home. Public safety of women is directly correlated with their socio-economic development.
To be free from fear:
In December 2012, a young girl travelling home in a bus with her friend was brutally gang-raped by four men. What made the incident more shocking than any other rape case was that it happened in public transport, not an abandoned alley.
While the police scrambled to find the perpetrators, and the horrified public took to the streets demanding justice, the government appointed a commission under Justice Verma to analyse the flaws in our safety and justice system to ensure this never happened again.
The commission came up with a report that details several measures, like providing well-lit roads, prohibiting the use of black films on car windows, equipping buses with CCTVs and GPS tags and creating a phone application that would send a distress signal if a woman was in danger.
Nirbhaya. That’s what the media called the Delhi gang-rape survivor. It is a Sanskrit word, meaning ‘the one without fear.’
In 2013, the central government set up a ‘Nirbhaya fund’ as a means of providing funding to states for women safety schemes. The cost of schemes implemented under the Nirbhaya Fund is supposed to be shared between the centre and the states in a 60:40 ratio. Women wouldn’t have to live in fear anymore.
Additionally, the commission also recommended broader measures like gender sensitization of police, setting up counselling centres and shelter homes, as well as creating ‘crime against women’ cells and special courts. The idea was to mitigate the possibility of a crime occurring by means of such deterrents.
In 2018, Umashree, the then Minister for Women and Child Development, opened the first one-stop crisis centre for women in Bangalore. “We wanted to create a space where women would get all the help they wanted in one place,” she said. The picture today, however, is very different.
The second floor of the maternity ward in Jayanagar General Hospital has a beige corridor that feels less sterile than the rest of the rooms. There are three desks in a large room. One section is cordoned off with a wooden screen–a girl is waiting near it for her friend. The room is abuzz with women flitting in and out, talking to the women manning the desks, writing names in the entry register and getting out their stories. This is Room 102, the first one-stop centre for women in distress in the city. There are two such centres in Bangalore–the second one recently opened on the second floor of the Majestic bus stand. The three women at the Jayanagar centre handled around 330 cases last year.
“Most of the women don’t make it here. Those who call the helpline are directed here,” said Saumya, coordinator of the centre. The helpline is not a perfect solution either; last year when the operators went on strike, the calls from the helpline had to be routed from various police stations, further delaying the process. “Delays are very serious in time-sensitive cases like the ones we handle,” she added. “There are just the three of us here to deal with it.”
In its preface, the Justice Verma report states that “failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law, and not the want of needed legislation.” Analysing the situation in Bangalore, the statement seems to hold true.
In 2015, the number of crimes against women in Bangalore was 3079. The number has largely remained unchanged, rising to 3486 in 2019, and slightly dipping in the pandemic to 2918 in the pandemic year.
There are 51 pink police patrol cars, or ‘Hoysalas’ for women’s safety in the city. There are two women’s police stations—one in Basavangudi and one in Shivajinagar. In Jan. 2021, 26 police stations got women’s help desks, where two counsellors provide psychological support to women in distress.
“We handle many cases every day—I would say at least 20 – 30. Some of them, we send to the counsellors; especially cases like domestic violence, dowry harassment,” said Kumar, the head constable at the women’s police station in Basavangudi. “Sexual harassment cases are rising, but that is also because more women are choosing to come forward. We encourage them to file complaints,’ he added.
K. S. Vimala, convenor of the Akhil Bharatiya Janawadi Mahila Sangathane, however, calls the process a punishment in itself. “Women are not believed. It is as simple as that. Street harassment in particular is underestimated by so many people. You don’t know the perpetrators here,” she said.
The most effective solution is a clear deterrent to the very act of sexual harassment, she added. “It doesn’t matter if the complaint process is supposedly easier. Harassment is still traumatic. We should be focused on preventing it in the first place, not fixing the aftermath,’ she said.
Using the Nirbhaya Fund:
The cost of schemes implemented under the Nirbhaya Fund is supposed to be shared between the centre and the states in a 60:40 ratio. According to reports, Karnataka has used only 7 percent of the Nirbhaya fund.
Under this fund, in 2019, the state government approved a project for the installation of 7500 CCTV cameras in the city. In 2020, the government announced another project for Rs 620 crores for the same purpose. Today, there are 742 working cameras in the city.
CCTV cameras don’t necessarily ensure public safety, said K. S. Vimala. “Cameras help solve crimes; they don’t work as deterrents. It’s a surveillance mechanism. This wasn’t even part of the Justice Verma commission recommendations. It is a very visible action, but not very effective. Women don’t feel safe,” she said.
There is a camera near the PG in Vasant Nagar where Soma Basu, a Mount Carmel student lived. There is a streetlight too, that peeks out under a dense canopy of leaves and branches. When it rains, the power often goes out.
Soma used to go for a walk every evening at 5:30. At a crossing, there is a semi-constructed abandoned house. A boy used to hide there and watch her. He followed her home one day. That night, when she went out, he tried to molest her. “A lot of students live here; this is fairly common. I filed a complaint, but I don’t know what became of it or whether they ever caught him,” she said.
Her complaint is buried in countless other stories like her. Soma doesn’t go for walks anymore.
The two Bangalores:
Article 16 of the Indian constitution provides equality of opportunity in matters of employment to all citizens. However, legal freedom means very little, if the environment around you doesn’t allow you to take advantage of it, said Vimala.
In 2016, the government removed several restrictions that prevented women in certain sectors from working the night shift. However, for safety purposes, in 2017 a joint legislature panel recommended that women in IT companies should not be assigned the night shift. Lack of safety measures and high incidence of crime is restricting women’s development.
The lack of safety hits economically weaker women harder, says Vimala. “There are two Bangalores really. There is the progressive M. G. Road and there is also Padarayanpura. There are women in the I.T. sector and there are garment workers. As women, they are both vulnerable, but the garment worker doesn’t have the option of switching to a new office or taking a sabbatical,” she said.
A typical garment worker earns around Rs 9,500 a month according to the minimum wage laws. They either take the company’s transport to work or they take shared autos. Harassment is very common for them. “The male drivers, the male co-workers, people in the autos—there is no dearth of men willing to take advantage of these women,” said Aruna of the garment workers’ union.
Saroja, general secretary of the union said most women choose not to complaint. “There is an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in the factories, but it only has representatives from the management and someone from a non-government organisation (NGO). There is no one from the union. The complaint gets buried” she said.
Saroja said they have approached the labour department and women’s commission many times, but there is no clear data on how many complaints have been filed and how many have been resolved.
“We can only intervene if a complainant comes to us,” said Nagalaxmi, president of the Karnataka State Women’s Commission. “We don’t have powers to suo moto check a company’s ICC records.”
The police have no role here, added Saroja. “The police demand proof. They also come home, which is why women don’t go to the police. They don’t want their families and neighbours to find out,” she said.
The union conducted a workshop for garment workers in March. The women were asked to check boxes—A for past harassment, B for ongoing, C for past but not now and D for never. Only eight percent women checked D. Most of these women are the sole breadwinners in their families, with the husbands either absent or unemployed, said Aruna.
“About 60 percent of their salary goes in rent. There is no scope for savings. The Karnataka government pays Rs 18,000 to group D workers; these women make less than that. They become too weak to work beyond the age of 40. They are not financially capable of fighting for justice,” said Saroja.
The why and the what next:
Research shows that often bystanders in a case of sexual assault do not intervene, because they either believe it is not their problem, or they think that people will judge them for intervening. This is partly what emboldens perpetrators, said Professor Ranpise, of the Sociology department in Pune University. “Abusers are convinced that because no one is stopping them, they are justified in their actions. Male entitlement also plays a huge role—some men believe no woman should reject them as they consider women inherently inferior,’ she added.
A mentality shift is necessary to solve this problem, she added. “Our school system needs to include gender education and the importance of consent. We also need better role models in films and popular culture,” she said.