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Street sexual harassment is not just a personal issue. We need governments at all levels to help prevent as well as report incidents.
So you’re planning an evening out with friends? If you’re a woman, you’ve probably started with the checklist in your head: How to get there? Check. How to get back? Check. Contingency plan for if you’re late? Check. People to inform if you’re not coming back? Check. People to send your status to every 2 minutes if you’re coming back late? Double check.
Unless you have access to a chauffeur driven car, or actually even then, the prospect of a jolly outing is never complete till it’s accompanied by a solid dose of paranoia.
In fact, the prospect of any ‘outing’ – even your daily trip to school/college and back – is always accompanied by paranoia.
Because you belong to the world of the urban female commuter: crushed on buses where uninvited hands roam your body ‘by mistake’, sandwiched in metros between the manspread knees of people who are just ‘adjusting’, driven tone deaf by musical whistles and ‘romantic’ lyrics belted out by romeos at transport shelters.
Thanks to rampant sexual harassment, public transport, for many women, is a necessary evil. Necessary, because we can’t just sit at home in fear of some idiots out there, right? Evil, because, well.
But is there a way to fix this? While the idea of safety is personal to an individual, are there external factors that contribute to this perception of safety, that we can perhaps control? Yes, street sexual harassment is a problem deep rooted in the mindset of the harasser; but sometimes, it is as important to tackle the symptoms as the disease itself.
In a consultation process initiated by the State Transport Authority in Chennai in early 2014, representatives from NGOs and users of public transport tried to compile a list of problem areas that the state could address. Drawn mainly from these conversations, and countless others I have had with users of public transport, here’s a quick checklist for the authorities in charge, in the hope that addressing these issues will, just may be, reduce the paranoia a little.
1. Do you have a system in place to address sexual harassment on your service?
To improve the confidence of women commuters, it is necessary to put in place a system of response. Do you have a helpline number the victim can call? Is there a way that your employees – including the conductors/drivers/security guards – can call for help in such a scenario? A standard operating procedure will improve the response time and mechanism, thereby making your system better.
2. Do your employees know what to do in case a woman complains of harassment?
Because it isn’t enough to have a standard operating procedure if your on-the-ground staff don’t know to use them. Often, victims of sexual harassment on public transport complain that the conductors/drivers ignored the issue completely, or did nothing to help them. Have your employees been trained to respond appropriately if they witness harassment? Have they been sensitised to the issue?
3. Have you told your users what redressal mechanism is available to them?
Or is it a case of water water everywhere, not a drop to drink? If you have a helpline number in place that victims can use to register complaints, but no one was aware of the existence of this number – it’s as good as not having a helpline.
4. Do your bus shelters or metro/train stations have adequate lighting?
A well lit place is automatically considered safer than a poorly lit one. Less places to lurk, firstly. Secondly – the eyes on the street have a clearer view and can help in case of trouble.
5. Is the frequency of your service high enough to avoid over crowding?
While this is a classic ‘symptom’, it is an important one to address. Over crowded buses/bogeys make it easy for the harasser. And difficult to identify him.
6. Is your service available round the clock or does it have a start and stop timing?
This checklist item is directly linked to how safe a woman feels in a city. Can she go out and come back without having to endlessly plan the logistics? Can she go from Place A to Place B at any point of time, without having to worry for her life if she gets a few minutes late?
7. Does your service employ women as drivers/conductors/security guards?
Or is it an all boys club? Do your users see women as part of the service, and therefore feel more comfortable on it?
8. Do you employ technology (CCTV cameras/complaint buttons/mobile apps) to tackle harassment and track offenders?
Because if you can’t stop them, can you catch them?
An efficient, affordable, clean and safe public transport system can go a long way in empowering women, by giving them the confidence to access public spaces as and when they want to. While a massive citizens effort is needed to change the culture of harassment in these spaces, the state can – and must – provide the necessary tangible and intangible infrastructure to facilitate the process.
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