On March 8 every year, the world celebrates International Women’s Day. In urban India, after the horrific Nirbhaya incident, the issues surrounding women’s safety have garnered greater media attention. The Government of India constituted the Justice Verma Committee in December 2012 to reform the anti-rape law. After taking into account some of the recommendations made by the committee, the Parliament enacted a stringent law against sexual assault. Since then, fast-track courts have been established to hasten resolution in such cases and many more women have come out to file complaints of sexual assault. Despite growing public consciousness, little has been done to improve the overall plight of women in both private and public spaces. Every 51 minutes a woman faces harassment or assault in India’s public spaces, according to a 2011 National Crime Records Bureau report. Within public spaces, one of the prime areas marked for change by the Justice Verma Committee is the public transport system. In its report, the committee highlighted the urgent need for greater safety measures for women, who use public transport. Unlike their richer counterparts, most women in urban spaces still use buses, metro, and auto-rickshaw to travel around the city. According to various reports, including one by the World Bank, there are significant differences between men and women when it comes to travel patterns. Though women assume a higher share of a household’s travel burden and care-taking responsibilities, they have inferior access to both public and private modes of transport, according to the Global Report on Human Settlements. Transport systems have unfortunately taken a long time to account for these differences. “We began talking about the issues of gender in urban planning in 2005 and today, 10 years later, the government is accepting its importance,” according to Kalpana Vishwanath, an activist with Jagori, a non-profit that works on women’s safety issues. “In the early days, it was an uphill task to even convince the government that there was any gender dimension to urban planning, design, and governance.” During the Delhi government’s recent experiment to reduce pollution in the national capital, single women in cars were exempted from the odd-even rule.
The explanation given by the government for such an exemption hinged on the question of women’s safety. What about those women who do not own cars? At this juncture, we arrive at the problem of last-mile connectivity. Although feeder buses do run from certain metro stations, there aren’t enough to fulfill the woman’s need for last-mile connectivity. Not everyone can afford to hire expensive taxis. The other alternative present is the auto rickshaw. However, according to many female commuters, hailing an auto rickshaw is a cumbersome process, especially at night. Even if they agree to ferry a customer, it is unlikely that they will follow the standard meter rate. The AAP government in Delhi, for example, could do a lot worse than revamping the outdated permit regulations on auto rickshaws. Moreover, governments must make the installation of GPS systems on auto rickshaws mandatory. The Delhi government did attempt such an order a few years back but faced stiff resistance from the auto unions. But the issue is one of political will and better policy implementation by the government. With the advent of GPS and the smart phone, the transport authorities could establish a public bus system, whereby commuters receive second-by-second updates about the time of arrival, disruptions, accidents, and delays. Commuters in London and New York, for example, use the Citymapper app to receive updates. Going a little further, Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, for example, recently introduced women-only buses in a bid to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment. In a 2013 World Bank report on public transport in Nepal, it was found that 96 percent women preferred being next to another woman in a public bus. Meanwhile, 33 percent of the female respondents said that they decided on their mode of transport based on concerns over personal security. Suffice to say, if a similar study was done in Delhi, Chandigarh, or Hyderabad, the results would not be all too dissimilar. Overcrowding in public buses, meanwhile, continues to be a problem for women subject to indecent behavior by their fellow male passengers. It is imperative to note that the use of GPS systems and the plying women-only buses are small parts to the solution. The emphasis, as stated in the first paragraph, must be on rethinking the way we understand public transport and the role gender plays.
On the legislative front, there are glaring inadequacies left in the Centre’s utilisation of the Nirbhaya Fund. It was the UPA-II government, which announced the creation of a Nirbhaya Fund, to support initiatives towards protecting the rights of women in public spaces. However, the lack of a clear mechanism to operationalise the fund has meant underutilisation, even though successive governments, including the NDA government, have allocated more money. In addition to a total corpus of Rs 3,000 crore in 2015-16, this year’s Union Budget allocated a further Rs 500 crore to the Nirbhaya Fund. Despite proposals being received from various ministries, such as Road Transport and Highways, and Information and Technology, the sum remains criminally underutilised. With the amount available, the government could fund quality research. But more than the underutilisation of the Nirbhaya Fund, ruling establishments have been guilty of not doing anything to amend the law on marital rape. According to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape”. Despite the availability of data and numerous committee recommendations, the Indian government has not yet addressed the problem. In fact, some legislators in the Parliament have gone on to the extent of defending this statute, by suggesting that if a law is introduced to criminalise marital rape, then the institution of marriage will fall apart. Under the guise of “due diligence”, the Centre had found a way to delay its response. Fortunately, the matter is under review in both the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court. Even the Justice Verma Committee had unambiguously recommended that the exception for marital rape must be removed. In its report, the committee argued that the “relationship between the accused and the complainant is not relevant to the inquiry into whether the complainant consented to the sexual activity”. Even the Indian government’s own data points to the need to criminalise marital rape.
In a 2006-07 survey, the National Family Health Survey (NGHS) survey had asked 80,000 random women between the ages of 15 and 49, about their experience with sexual violence. Data from the survey detailed that 8.5 percent of the respondents (one in 12 women) had experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Almost 93 percent of these women said that they had been sexually abused by their current or former husbands. Meanwhile, only 1 percent said that they had been sexually assaulted by a stranger. However, it would be foolish to presume that a mere change in law would turn the tide against marital rape. It requires a serious assault on the patriarchal social norms that remain entrenched. Suffice to say, this is not just relegated to the problem of marital rape. To conclude, remedies to the above problem would not necessarily bring a sea of change to the plight of the average women. The emphasis, especially on the question of public transport, has been primarily in urban spaces. Rural India presents a whole host of other entrenched social ills that are perpetrated against women. Presenting the solutions to these problems will require more than a column.