Women’s safety in public spaces has always been an issue in India. A recent perception survey by global experts of the Thomson Reuters Foundation India has been ranked as the world’s most dangerous country for women, a conclusion that has come under much debate.

New research by Save The Children focuses on understanding safety perceptions among young girls from rural and urban areas across the country. The survey (Wings 2018, A study on the perception of girls’ safety in public spacesreport shows women find using public transport very risky. It claims that travelling in public transport gave the highest sense of risk perception across both urban (47 per cent) and rural (40 per cent) centres as respondents said they feared for their safety.

From being harassed on the streets, or while using public transport, women and adolescent girls have a lot to deal with to just navigate between their workplaces, schools, colleges etc. What makes it worse is that in the event there is an unsavoury incident, young girls hesitate to report it to their parents for fear that their stepping out will be curbed.

In India, adolescent girls fear telling their parents about harassment due to various reasons.

  • Girls from High-Income Groups fear more due to a more cocooned life
  • Brothers and parents feel public spaces are unsafe for girls
  • Trust issues widen the gap between parents and girls
  • Unmonitored invasion of social media into the children’s lives
  • Breakdown of communication within the family

ALSO READ: Does India Deserve ‘Most Dangerous’ For Women Tag?

PARENTS’ PERCEPTION OF SAFETY FOR YOUNG GIRLS

58 % of adolescent boys and 52 % of parents are of the opinion that it is not safe for girls to travel by public transport in the evening, says the report.

While they feel that public spaces are unsafe for girls, the big burden of safety lies with the girls and how they should ensure that they stay indoors when they don’t “have to” go out. Society victim-shames girls in cases of harassment and molestation in public spaces. Suneeta Dhar of Jagori spoke about why girls don’t report cases of harassment. She said, “Registering a case with the police is cumbersome, time and resource-intensive, with insufficient institutional support. The lack of counselling and solidarity faced by survivors serves as another disincentive.”

The report goes on to state that adolescent girls have limited rights on public spaces like playgrounds and parks with only 20% in urban areas and 15% in rural areas.

“This could be attributed to a large extent to the fear factor arising from the presence of unwanted elements in these areas. Much of the time ill maintenance (in terms of inadequate lighting, cleanliness not being maintained, overgrowth of weeds etc.) of these areas leads to the presence of these people,” said the report.

GAP BETWEEN PARENTS AND GIRLS

There are major trust issues between parents and young girls and real conversations around safety are limited. As patriarchal as it is, even the adults don’t have the sensitization to deal with safety issues of young girls. They go for generic safety measures like advocating the girls wear modest clothing, staying at home at late hours, discouraging friendship with boys, etc. However, as has been proved time and again, criminal cases have happened in the most secure environments, in fact, some within the secure surroundings of the house. An NCRB report from 2014 found that 86% of rape survivors knew the offender, who was either a family member or a close relative whom the victim would normally have no reason to fear.

“When I was young, one of my cousins used to touch me inappropriately and then when I would threaten him that I would complain about him. He would tell me that nobody would believe me. I literally thought that nobody would believe me and it would ruin family relations as our families were extremely close.  I suffered sexual abuse for over five years and I was only 10 then,” said Manvi (21), who is studying a graduate course in New Delhi.

“When I recently told them about it, my mother got furious and scolded me for not talking about it earlier,” she added, “I still did not feel comfortable.”

According to the report, fathers and mothers preferred restricting the movement of girls in public spaces after dark (Mothers – 66 %; Fathers – 61 %) as a solution. More than 50 % of adolescent girls considered not initiating a friendship with strangers as a safety-enhancing measure.

Sonal Kapoor of Protsahan spoke to us about how younger boys still accompany their older sisters when they go out in many places because the general perception is such that the boy will protect the girl even if he is younger. She said that there is also a trust issue that girls face from their own parents.

“In one of my recent slum panchayat meeting, a 16-year-old girl told me about a day when she was having a conversation with a boy younger than her on the road about how he would harm to her younger sister by seating her on the cycle as a pillion rider. Her relative, who was passing by the same road saw the girl talking to the younger boy and threatened her that he’d tell her mother about it.

She knew that she hadn’t done anything wrong and had only talked with someone who happened to be a boy, but as her mother heard it from the male relative; she went all up in arms about it and thrashed the girl without even listening to her side of the story. The girl said that they assassinated my character just because I was talking with a boy.”

Registering a complaint against harassment is a far cry in these circumstances. Young girls even hesitate from telling their parents or brothers about their traumatic situations.

THE REASON BEHIND THE FEAR

“Firstly, there is an unmonitored invasion of social media into the children’s lives and secondly, there is a breakdown of communication within the family because the adults are busy earning and whether it is a privileged background or not the lifestyle has changed immensely,” Soha Moitra, regional Director of CRY Foundation, told SheThePeople.TV, adding that today there is hardly any time for parents to exchange the daily activities of children and talk naturally.

“Children mostly talk over social media in these times and not physically. Unfortunately, adults are not giving children space to open up as they stress on academic pressure or that they are not good enough. So then there is a natural block which restricts the child from sharing their personal misery.

Even the children receive so much of information around sexual abuse and violence which is not in control of the child to actually filter in the way they should. Another thing is that today, adolescent girls grow up in nuclear families where they only have their parents to share their lives with while earlier there would joint families where children were at least comfortable with some adult or the other,” Moitra shed light on why young girls fear disclosing to their parents about episodes of abuse and harassment.

Ambika Gupta (22) who is attending college in Rajasthan said that it was a taboo to talk about boys at her home. “My parents did not like those girls who went out too often or they had heard that they had guy friends so they would talk about them degradingly, there was no scope I could even tell them if I felt weird in school or anywhere because that would mean that I won’t go out.” Gupta comes from a small town of Orai in Uttar Pradesh.

Children mostly talk over social media in these times and not physically. Unfortunately, adults are not giving children space to open up as they stress on academic pressure or that they are not good enough. So then there is a natural block which restricts the child from sharing their personal misery.

The findings highlight existing gender stereotypes that have an influence in deciding what measures girls need to adopt to be safe in public places. While more girls incline towards taking measures that show their active agency parents and boys incline to a passive approach which ultimately put restrictions on their freedom and aspirations.

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