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     Volume 7 Issue 23 | June 06, 2008 |

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An Everyday Threat

Kavita Charanji

“Women know from experience that some men, perhaps having learned of feminine behaviour primarily through beer commercials, are only too ready to get the wrong idea from a friendly smile. In the urban environment fear is the real smile killer.”
Steve Burgess, Reader's Digest, May 2008

As every woman knows, it could get worse-- lascivious leers, staring, gesticulating, touching, pinching, passing lewd comments, sexual assault. Delhi's roads are completely unsafe particularly at night. Most women avoid going out alone after dusk or if they have to are accompanied by male friends. “ If one drives one is afraid of hold ups,” says one college student “Men burst into suggestive Hindi songs when they espy you; in buses one gets pawed. Even if I am wearing a demure salwar kameez, people will stare as if you are some kind of object.” However, she draws comfort from that most of her girl friends are all in the same boat.

Another young woman, Pallavi Narain, a teacher in the New Delhi-based school Learning Matters Foundation recalls some harrowing experiences: “If one is driving one faces aggression on the road. Other male drivers cannot stomach the idea of a woman going ahead of them and will gesticulate and pass sexist remarks. Auto rickshaw drivers will shout at you. Once when I left college in the afternoon, I was followed by a group of boys. I promptly returned to college and left one hour later.”

The streets indeed are a hot bed of sexual harassment. One young artist was often subjected to nightly catcalls of mirchi (chilli) and tamatar (tomatoes), food items being the common sexual taunts for women pedestrians. Even something as innocuous as the weather can be thrown at women. Or the crude remark 'Kya maal hai' (What a piece of goods).

And if you thought that offices are safe, think again. One young friend recalls working in an organisation where her boss regularly engaged in suggestive talk and even tried to get physical. Three months later she was compelled to leave the office. However the harassment did not end as he would pester her with blank calls.

Another woman has had a bitter experience in an office. One day the harassment starteddouble entendres, stares and gazes at various parts of her anatomy. The guy just wouldn't take no for an answer Not just one man, a group of men supposedly highly educated subjected her to such harassment that eventually her work began to suffer affecting her efficiency, productivity and leading to a total psychological collapse. Obviously she could not continue to work in such a hostile environment.

Strangely enough, such sleazy behaviour goes by the name of “eve teasing.” Women activists point out that the word 'teasing' trivialises the issue and is too mild a term for such unwelcome humiliating behaviour, while 'eve' carries overtones of temptation.

Women's groups in India have taken up the burning issue of sexual harassment. In their ranks is Jagori (Awaken, women), a women's training, documentation, communication and resource centre. As part of its Safe Delhi campaign, the organisation has come up with a path breaking study called Is this our city?Women's safety in public spaces in Delhi.

To kick start this campaign, Jagori organised a Dialogue in order to share information with stake holders such as women's organisations, NGOs, citizen's groups, community organisations, development institutions, educational institutions, the Delhi Police, law enforcement agencies, the Delhi administration, media and elected representatives. The aim was to share Jagori's work on conducting safety audits in various parts of the city as a means to involve people in the issue of safety for women.

For its community safety audit, a group of people (usually women or any other vulnerable group) walks through a space particularly after dark, and observes it to assess what makes it unsafe and the necessary changes that are needed to make it safer. The audit zeroes in on both the infrastructure (lights, signage, pavement, among others) and women's perception of these spaces. This exercise was carried out in residential areas, markets, university, railway station, metro stations, parks, resettlement colonies and commercial complexes.

As a fall out of this strategy, it was found that safety has different perspectives-the lack of or poorly designed infrastructure such as poorly lit roads, broken and dirty pavements, location of shops and residences, overgrown trees and dark areas. A second factor is the role of police, law enforcement agencies and other responsible authorities. Thirdly, many public spaces such as cigarette shops, dhabas, taxi stands, a few street corners and some parks are dominated by men. Furthermore, there is a complete lack of public support for sexually harassed women on whom squarely lies the onus for proving that they have faced such harassment.

As for the law, international conventions and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), of which India is a signatory, states that all signatory nations should work towards ending violence against women and also eradicate all forms of discrimination against women. However, it was only in the case of Vishaka vs the State of Rajasthan (1997) that the term “sexual harassment” was given a legal recognition. Explaining this law, Tenzing Choesang, a research and advocacy officer at the Lawyers Collective, Women's Rights Initiative, says, “In the Vishaka case, the Supreme Court clearly mentioned that sexual harassment is a violation of the Fundamental Rights: right to life, right to equality and right to work.”

Along with a definition, the court also formulated some guidelines to deal with the issue: a clear anti-sexual harassment policy in workplaces: and the formation of a committee in any complaint on this subject. This guidelines were to be followed till a law on sexual harassment could be evolved. However, as Tenzing points out, there is no such specific law. The government, she says, is in the process of drafting a law and the Bill is pending with the Ministry of Women and Child Development. As of now, the cases of harassment are mostly taken care of by the guidelines. Many workplaces have formed internal complaints committees so that in case of complaints an enquiry can be carried out. Sexual harassment policies have been evolved by workplaces and even universities. The committees carry out an enquiry and come out with findings. However, say activists, the implementation of the guidelines has been unsatisfactory and most of the recommendations are not binding in nature.

At a deeper level, civil society needs to deal with the whole issue of patriarchy. According to many sociologists, sexual harassment is an expression of male power and seeks to put women in their place by reminding of their vulnerability and subjugated place in society.

Changing mindsets, then, is the greatest challenge for civil society. Organisations can help by undertaking effective training programmes for their men and women staff to recognise sexual harassment and deal with it when it occurs. Gender sensitisation campaigns are also underway with different constituents. Jagori, for one, has just finished a training with the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) to sensitise bus drivers and conductors on the issue. The organisation has also organised the training of police officers of different ranks on gender sensitisation. Surveys have revealed that a large number of molestation cases occur in buses. As many as 90 percent of the 18,000 respondents in a public perception survey undertaken to collect data for the Human Development Report felt that public transport is unsafe for women in Delhi. According to Anupriya Ghosh, project associate in Jagori's training team, there was a mixed response, “ Some of the participants in the training completely denied the occurrence of sexual harassment in buses. There were some who shared their experiences and admitted that such cases do take place.”

A common question that crops up in every such training, says Anupriya is whether women brought about such harassment by donning provocative attire. “This is a complete myth, “ she points out, adding that surveys both by Jagori and the world over reveal that women of all ages and no matter how attired, are targets for harassment. A study for Delhi Police, for instance, showed that 82 percent of the women who were part of the survey were wearing everyday, non-provocative clothes when they were harassed.

The question arises how women can deal with this uncomfortable situation. Activists say that victims should not remain silent. To remain quiet in the face of such harassment, be it of oneself or another woman, is to perpetuate this heinous crime. Speaking out is an effective tool in combating it. Another weapon could be self defence strategies. One girl's strategyas if is for many womenis to ignore the culprit However, she says, she is open to the idea of learning some form of martial arts.

Thankfully, all men are not harassers. Some sensitive men have taken it on themselves to combat patriarchal mindsets and enable women to live with greater security. Among the men who have spoken out is Feisal Alkazi, theatre personality, educationist, social activist and art lover. His NGO Creative Learning for change has taken up gender sensitisation training programmes for the India Navy, Park Hotels, schools and colleges. He has also written a book, aptly titled Gender on the Agenda.

Clearly the ball has been set rolling. The progress may be painfully slow but for starters the silence that surrounded sexual harassment is gradually breaking down. Nor is this just a “women's issue.” There are many stakeholders: policy makers, activists, police, urban planners, citizen's groups, community organisations and educational institutions which need to get involved. In the meanwhile, women must speak out loud and clear if they are subjected to such humiliating behaviour.

.Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008