New Delhi’s Women Problem: What Does It Take to Make a City, and Society, Safe?

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Kaushik Roy / India Today Group / Getty Images

Women attend the 'Besharmi Morcha' march or 'Slutwalk' in New Delhi on July 31,2011.

One of the first things I heard when I moved to New Delhi was to be careful at night. I heard it from my real estate agent, my colleagues, from people I met at coffee shops and bars. I knew the incidence of rape in the Indian capital was high, but I largely interpreted the warnings as other people underestimating my ability to take care of myself. Let’s not linger too long on that weird reaction, but I will add that I’ve been living in relatively safe places for the past few years, and I had forgotten what it felt like to live in a place where, as a woman in public, you’re usually pretty aware that you are that: a woman in public.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Here, it can be. In a 2010 survey, nearly 80% of women in New Delhi reported being worried about their safety, and a quick glance at any paper in the morning will offer some insight as to why. Let’s take last Thursday. On April 26, the Times of India covered the following stories: an alleged rape by a Delhi cop, two separate cases of naked and mutilated female corpses being dumped in different parts of the city, and a husband who murdered his wife whom he suspected of infidelity.

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Other cities in the world have worse crime rates than Delhi, but the streets of the capital are by far the most dangerous public spaces for women in India, outstripping Mumbai in reported rapes by hundreds of cases each year. In 2009, 15.4% of the crimes against women committed in all of India were in the capital, according to the UN. And the problem, while unfortunately nothing new here, is getting steadily worse, both on the street and in the private space of women’s homes.

Part of the problem, in the public sphere anyway, has to do with the city’s spotty infrastructure and haphazard city planning. Things like not having enough street lights and overcrowding on train cars naturally create insecure situations, and the city is full of them. My personal assumption has been that urban spaces are safer for white collar workers like me, who keep semi-regular office hours and can afford to not walk home late at night. But Anne Stenhammer, the U.N. Women’s Regional Program Director in New Delhi, says the problem here is not so clearly divided along socio-economic lines. “It’s not about where you come from, or if you have blue or black eyes,” says Stenhammer. “It’s a bigger challenge.”

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The question of how women’s experiences of discrimination and violence translate across cultural and class lines is, of course, a complicated one, as evidenced by the controversy stirred up by the current Foreign Policy cover. In the article “Why Do They Hate Us?”, journalist Mona Eltahaway takes men across the Middle East to task for what she sees as the rampant discrimination against women in the region. She argues that whatever social or political progress was made in uprisings of 2011 will not be not complete until the chronic repression of women also ends: “Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.” It’s an emotional piece of writing from a seasoned Middle East correspondent that immediately generated a large backlash. Critics called her argument“culturally regressive” and “offensive” for, among many reasons, playing into the hand of Western stereotypes about women (and men) in the Arab world. (See a video about Tunisia produced by Eltahaway for TIME.)

As a recent transplant, I’m not prepared to draw my own conclusions about the underpinnings of why such a large number of women feel so unsafe, particularly because it’s a problem I can’t wrap my head around in my own country. I lived in the U.S. with pepper spray in my bag and a key between my knuckles for years; it was only after living in northern Europe and East Asia that I understood there were parts of the world where it was normal to feel okay walking alone on a sidewalk at night.

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But there is no shortage of explanations that others have offered. Dark bus stops and poorly planned communities are among them. So, some say, is the population’s persistent mindset that women who don’t dress traditionally or abstain from drinking are making themselves targets. Some point to India’s backed-up court system being unable to uphold the rape laws that are on the books, or to the nation’s growing gender gap, a demographic testament to the much more entrenched problem of girls being seen as a social and financial burden. A recent study from the University of Toronto, based on 2011 census and earlier population data, estimates as many as 12 million girls have been aborted in the last three decades.

There is also no shortage of people offering solutions on how to make Delhi safer. In 1983, the Delhi Police set up the Crimes Against Women Cell, the first police force in India specifically tasked with handling violence directed at women, and the operation is still running today. NGOs and online campaigners are trying to bring awareness to the cause, calling for more CCTVs to be installed in areas where rapes are frequent, for better workplace safety and for new hotlines to be set up. Stenhammer says that the local government has been trying to make changes in Delhi, like setting up women-only subway cars, but creating safe spaces by separating men and women is not a long-term solution. “When we stay apart, then we create a totally different society, one that is not human-rights based,” she says. “We have to live in a common society and be together — women and men, boys and girls.”

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