In a survey conducted by ASSOCHAM in the first three months following the Delhi gang-rape incident of December 16, 2013, it was found that there was sharp drop in the female tourists in India, almost about 35%.
A further nine months later, the situation is no better. Women tourists, especially those travelling alone, often skip India on their South Asia tour; and those that do tend to take plenty of precaution while here.
“Yes, I did feel unsafe during my trip to India,” says Izzati Rahman, law graduate from Malaysia who visited India during the summer of 2011. “While there were no deliberate sexual harassment attempts, there were a lot of stares. They will still stare at you and your body parts even when you do show signs that you know they are watching,” she shares.
Kathleen McLeod from Australia has a similar tale to tell. “I am on my guard no matter where I am. I would not feel safe being out by myself in Delhi though; every man would be staring, or following. While in Mumbai, there were men taking photographs on their cell phones of me and my friends,” says McLeod.
Derogatory stares were, of course, the least of their worries. “When in crowded areas it was common for them to 'rub their bodies' at you; they would stick their bodies so close to girls but not with other men,” narrated Rahman.
The photojournalist gang-rape in Mumbai from earlier this year has also raised questions on the integrity of the city otherwise known to be fairly cosmopolitan and safe for women. The spate of violent attacks against female tourists has not helped the cause either. “A girlfriend of mine who went to India with one of her friends was attacked by men during a nature walk and had to fight them off,” recalls McLeod.
Another Victoria Flannery, also from Australia, cancelled her study trip to India after her father witnessed safety issues during his visit the same year.
These aren't just tales of isolated incidences, but a noticeably rising trend that reveals an equally regressive mindset. Women who would otherwise look forward to touring India and immersing themselves into its culture, are now very sceptical of backpacking across this country.
Even embassies around the world have issued special advisories for tourist who visit India suggesting extra caution for female travellers. For instance the Irish government informs its travellers, "In India, women travellers often receive unwanted attention in the form of verbal and physical harassment by individuals or groups of men. It is also unusual for women to travel independently." It further advises, "Women travellers should be particularly careful when selecting their accommodation and consider sharing a room where possible."
A US government website on the other hand states, "Sexual harassment most frequently has happened in crowded areas such as in market places, train stations, buses, and public streets. US citizens, particularly women, are cautioned not to travel alone in India."
Taking note of the Delhi gang-rape, it also adds, "Women should observe stringent security precautions, including avoiding use of public transport after dark without the company of known and trustworthy companions, restricting evening entertainment to well-known venues, and avoiding isolated areas when alone at any time of day."
Some useful tips for women travellers
Avoid travelling alone. It's always safer to travel in groups. “Go with a tour group, or travel with a friend and hire a driver; someone trusted, recommended by a good hotel or something,” advises McLeod. “Keep emergency contacts handy and avoid confrontation,” Rahman adds to that.
They also both agree upon keeping it low key. “Don't attract any extra attention to yourself as being a foreigner will give you extra attention already,” says Rahman. “Dress conservatively, not that it stops rapists but you get so much attention as a tourist, it does help,” adds McLeod.
She also recommends staying alert, “Walk confidently, head high, pay attention to surroundings. Don't be afraid to yell at someone to leave you alone.” On the other hand Rahman shares a few personal hacks that she followed, “We always brought something that could fight of attacks such as sharp pens, perfume or backpack spines all the time.”
India probably still has a long way to go before we can rebuild lost confidence, and once again become a preferable tourist destination. “I would say danger is everywhere. This problem is not exclusively in India, though reports of its high occurrence reminds us to be vigilant at all times,” concludes Rahman who also said that while she would be definitely visit India again, but maybe not alone!