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Safety is a right all women must have

Wednesday, 21 May 2014 - 7:10am IST | Agency: DNA
Kalpana Viswanath is a researcher on women's safety who has been associated with Jagori and is also the co-founder of Safetipin, a mobile app for safety

Dear Mr Prime Minister,

Women's safety has finally come onto the agenda of all political actors. It is unfortunate that such a terrible incident (of December 16, 2012) had to happen before women's safety became a political agenda.

Across the spectrum, parties have started speaking about women's safety. Yet we find that the notion of safety is often a narrow one which focuses primarily on addressing an incident after it has happened. But creating safer communities and cities is a much wider process that only addressing violence. It must also deal with the process of prevention and creating the conditions whereby rights can be realised. It cannot be stressed enough that programmes that deal with ending violence against women must be multi-pronged and must involve a wide range of stakeholders. We need political commitment to bring about long-term and systemic change that addresses the actual causes of the problem.

First, the work of addressing violence and crime is a police issue. We want better policing and a robust legal system in all respects. From the moment an incident of violence takes place, we expect quick, efficient and non-judgemental responses. The FIR must be lodged without asking questions that would cause the woman to doubt whether she should trust the system. Thus there should be no questions asked about why she was out or what she was wearing or who she was with. Following this, the case must be followed up and dealt with swiftly and properly by the legal system so that perpetrators of violence have a fear of the repercussions of their actions. We do not need a stricter regime of punishment and are not asking for the death penalty, but for more efficient systems which will ensure that the surety of punishment is guaranteed.

But addressing the police and legal system is not enough. Many other institutions also need to part of the solution. We need to have better planning, service delivery and governance in order to ensure that our cities and towns are designed in ways that ensure accessibility, safety and inclusion. Safety audits done across cities have shown that urban planning and infrastructure can play a role in making spaces safer.

Thus we need better lighting , better streets, well-maintained sidewalks and other infrastructure. In addition to infrastructure, our cities and towns need to be planned in ways that ensure that the streets are active, lively and usable by a wide variety of people, including women, children, disabled and others.

Public toilets are severely lacking in our cities and the ones that exist are often in bad condition and are barely usable. In slums and resettlement areas where community toilets are often the norm, we need to ensure that clean, well maintained and safe public toilets are provided for everyone. We have heard of several instances where girls and women have faced harassment in these community toilets and in fields while going for open defecation.

Public transport needs to be made safer and more efficient. Studies from across Indian cities have shown that women have reported facing a great deal of molestation and harassment while using and waiting for public transport. Having women-only carriages and buses may be a partial solution, we need all forms of public transport to be safe for women and girls to use at all times of the day and even night. Why is it so unsafe for women and girls to be out after dark? The fear of probable harassment and violence results in rights being denied to girls and women. For example, some families have taken their daughters out of school or college because of fear of violence. Therefore, creating safer spaces and providing safer transport is a way of ensuring women's right to the city.

Much has been said in this past year about changing mindsets. After all this is the country where we kill our daughters even before they are born. Creating a safer and more caring community for girls and women requires a change in the way people think and social norms. For this we need to address the education system and popular culture to ensure new ways of thinking and that equality is fostered as a value. It is difficult to create a just and equal society when girls and women are so undervalued. We need political commitment to achieve this. Merely talking about protecting women or teaching them self defence is not going to create a safer world. The discourse of protection needs to be changed to a discourse of rights. Safety is a right that all women and girls in this country must have.

Yours sincerely


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