The news of the gang rape of a Delhi woman in 2012 sent shockwaves across India. The brutal rape of the 23-year old woman by six men instigated a nation-wide conversation around women and their safety in Indian cities, and the conversation has been ongoing ever since. In the Indian capital earlier this month, a room full of taxi drivers and rickshaw operators attended a class on gender dedicated to discussing how they can make transportation safer for women in the city.
Following the horrendous 2012 assault, India’s parliament passed an anti-rape law canonizing punishment for rape, coupled with a number of articles condemning other types of assault such as stalking, voyeurism, and disrobing. As of 2017, drivers are required to sit in on a “gender sensitization” class in order to renew their commercial licenses. The moderated class engages drivers in conversing on how they can actively participate in securing their vehicles for women, which make up 70% of their clientele. Drivers from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds share their thoughts on how their behavior implicates the safety of female riders.
For many, the idea of an independent woman navigating the perilous streets of Delhi is still not socially acceptable in comparison to the stereotypical image of a woman, commonplace in traditional communities in India. According to Rutika Sharma, a social worker at the Manas Foundation, cabbies and rickshaw drivers do not pose an exceptional threat to women and their safety. Rather, it is these categorical understandings of women – whether they are “good” or “bad” – that threaten women.
Sharma believes that this dichotomy between the “city Indian” and the “deep-rooted Indian” often informs drivers’ understandings of women. It is these understandings that inform their behavior and threaten the safety of women in automobiles. Some drivers have blamed the passengers themselves for informing this negative image drivers have of women. However, Sharma responds to these claims that society in the city is drastically different from that of the village. And just as the drivers have upgraded their phones and installed air conditioners in their cars to stay up-to-date with city life, they need to accustom themselves to the lifestyle women adopt in the city.
Despite government efforts to curb sexual assault on women in Delhi, there was a 277% increase in the number of reported rapes in the city between 2011 and 2016. The increase, however, does not necessarily reflect an increase in the number of rapes as much as it reflects an increasing willingness of women to report them. But according to Delhi’s commissioner for women Swati Maliwal, the problem lies in not having the right mindset to change how society treats women, and therefore not being able to make public spaces safe for them. While the Indian government has been pushing to lay down the necessary legislation to curb sexual assault, it has been difficult to prevent officials from discouraging victims from reporting crimes.
Earlier this year in Mexico City, the STC metro line installed a seat that was designed to make men experience what it feels like to be sexually assaulted, with the objective of tackling the city’s rampant harassment problem.