“I do not feel safe travelling in an auto.”
“I do not feel safe walking past a dark street.”
“I do not feel safe when construction workers look at me.”
These statements were given in answer to the question “What are the situations where you feel unsafe?” As part of my work with Vanita Sahaya Vani (Women’s helpline), I was asked to speak to a group of P.G. students from Indian Academy on the topic of Women’s Safety. The common phrase repeated by the staff and students was “I do not feel safe..”
Most talks, activities and events that focus on Women’s Safety in today’s time take the tone of angry activism, hatred towards men, sympathy towards woman, preaching of strict morals and demands for stringent law enforcement. What we fail to see is that all of this is working wonderfully well in creating aggressive men, hostile women and an atmosphere that breeds fear, encourages suspicion and leads to unnatural relationships between men and women.
Is our safety completely out of our hands? Are woman supposed to live in eternal fear on a day to day basis? Are pepper-sprays and self-defense classes the answer? Or is the answer what one woman in the gathering shouted, “Eliminate all the men and there will be no problem!”
This write-up is an attempt to share with you my experiences as a counsellor dealing with harassed women, a social worker whose acquaintances & friends come from the so-called dangerous section of society comprising slums, and as a woman who has lived, traveled and worked alone in safe and some not-so-safe circumstances.
Fear: How real is it?
The other day, I was caught in the rain at Shivajinagar bus stand at around 8pm. I had no company and stood by a shop waiting for the rain to subside. Soon, I was joined by around 10 men on either side of me. It was dark, raining and there were no other women around. For a brief moment, my mind took me for a ride. I pictured it all – that I would be gang raped and no one would get to know; that I would somehow get to the nearest police station, and stupidly enough I even thought about the support I could get from Vanita Sahaya Vani to help me recover from it all! And then, I looked at the men. I saw tired, hungry faces, mostly of laborers, taking shelter from the rain at the end of a long day. There was no malice in their eyes; only the thought of when can they could get some rest. And here I was, all ready to battle out what didn’t even exist!
I dare say, this is the case with most women and what happens on a day to day basis. After all, what is there to fear in the dark? How can an empty street in itself harm you? And men, especially those from economically weaker sections have far too many things going on in their mind, to think, plan and act to harm a stranger for no good reason!
Prevention: The much underestimated tool
I grew up as quite an awkward teenager. In fact, there was a time between the age of 15 to 17 years, where almost every time I stepped out, I was molested – a pinch, a squeeze, subtle and not-so-subtle touches – I seemed to draw these to me like a magnet. It seemed like I was the pick of every man who was looking for a prey. And then, someone held me a mirror and I saw what the attacker saw in me – fear was usually written all over me as I slouched, looked down and walked, looking lost and unaware of where I was going.
A simple change of body language and being aware of myself and my surroundings has done for me what no pepper-spray or self defense class could do. In all my travels alone, within the city and outside it, I have not faced any untoward incident, simply because I am mindful. Not fearful; but mindful. Another important weapon is your intuition which signals you when something isn’t right. Women and children have a strong sense of intuition; trusting it and allowing it to guide you can prevent many unsafe circumstances.
Even if there is a chance of real danger, acting from fear takes us nowhere. A classic example is how women who have been victims of abuse often act unnaturally when molested. Where a normal woman in a calm state of mind would act naturally to kick off the touch or shout for help, a victim of abuse who acts from fear usually just freezes. The fear paralyses all your natural defenses and sensibilities and encourages the attacker. Do remember that unless and until you are in a situation that is completely out of your hand, there is nothing to fear. It might give you some relief to know that only about 16% of crimes against women are planned attacks. That means, much of it can be prevented. When a real crisis confronts you, I can assure you that the chilli powders and karate kicks will be of no use if you do not have the presence of mind to stay calm. And if you do remain calm, you should be able to walk yourself out of most situations with minimal or no fight.
Men – Bystanders, protectors and potential heroes!
It is wonderful to note that there are several men who now raise their voice for women’s safety. But the problem is when they start to think that they can only help a girl in trouble if they raised their hand, showed aggression and tried to scare away the attacker. Dear men, unless you are absolutely an expert fighter who can take on anything that comes your way, please do not aggravate the situation with your heroism. There is a time to be heroic and a time to simply think in the best interest of the women in potential trouble, even if it makes you a coward temporarily.
When you sense trouble, do not begin by attacking, either verbally or physically. Instead, try and diffuse the situation. It takes a lot of maturity and calmness to curtail the feeling of fighting the attacker who is trying to hit on a woman you care about. But remember, this is not about you and your anger. It is about getting the hell out of the situation, with minimal or no harm to the woman and to yourself.
When are we unsafe?
Unsafe situation do not arise from locations such as streets or liquor shops, situations of night or rain, or activities like travelling by auto or bus. Avoiding these will not ensure you safety, but it will surely engulf you with fear and take away every vestige of normalcy in your life. The feeling of not being safe comes from people. And these people could be strangers, friends, acquaintances and even family members.
The women who come to Vanita Sahaya Vani, are often beaten, harassed, abused and exploited by their closest family members. In my own cases in the last month, I am yet to find a client who has come with a complaint against a man who is a stranger. Beaten and dumped by her husband and his friends; stalked by her long separated father; sexually abused by a family friend; raped by her husband…..it is in her home that women are many-a-time the most unsafe.
It is also likely that other cases of harassment or harm to women do not get reported because women might feel that they were partly responsible for the crime. This typically happens in cases where women are abused/raped by their boyfriends, close friends or acquaintances. In such situations, women might feel that she was part of creating the situation and that her word would not be considered strongly enough. Also, she might feel fear or embarrassment to reveal the incident since her family might not be aware of such a situation at all. But, what all women need to know, and there is no doubt here – If anything that happens to you is against your wish or causes physical or emotional trauma, you can file a complaint and you will receive support. In fact, the laws are so much in favour of women today, that we come across cases of it being misused to inflict harm on men!
Why we need to refrain from generalizing what or who is unsafe
It saddens me when women generalize and say that auto drivers or bus conductors are likely to commit offenses against women. And it is even worse when we assume that most crimes happen because of the people residing in the neighborhood slum. If only women could make an attempt to talk to the men who they think are out there to harm them…..
I have forgotten the number of times when I have travelled by an auto at night and struck up a casual conversation with the auto driver about who he is, his family, how his day went and so on. And with just this little bit of effort, not only was there no need for me to feel fear, the auto driver too felt comfortable and took on the role of my protector until he dropped me home.
As for people residing in slums, I can say this much with surety – I feel safer in a slum where people know each other, than in a posh apartment where people have no clue of who their next door neighbor is! The warmest welcomes, the best hospitality and the safest settings for me during my travels has been in slums and villages.
During my work in a migrant labour slum in Bangalore, I realized that huge invisible walls of fear are built by both the rich and the poor, each fearing the other without any concrete reason. While the rich fear that the poor are the thieves, murderers and rapists, the poor live in constant fear that the rich could throw them out of their homes any minute. Incidents of violence could arise out of such imagined fear rather than any real reason.
In case you or anyone you know needs support, the information below might help.
Vanita Sahaya Vani (VSV), reachable on the toll free number 1091, operates out of the office of the Commissioner of Police, on infantry road, Bangalore. The type of cases handled include marital problems, domestic violence, divorce, custody of children, physical harassment, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and any other problem that women wish to seek counselling or help for.
Once you call the helpline, you will have access to various forms of assistance, such as
- Counselling – Trained counsellors will attend to you, offer a helping hand, listen to your problem, and guide you towards meaningful action to regain normalcy
- Legal service – A government appointed lawyer consults once a week at the premises of VSV to offer free legal advice and assistance
- Police support – VSV works out of the commissioner’s office and you will have police protection if and when you or your caretakers require it
- Rescue – Following a call requesting a rescue operation, a van will reach the rescue spot with a team comprising a female social worker and a female police staff and undertake required action
- Short stay – VSV has tied up with other NGOs which provide short stay facilities for women and children in distress who might not have a place to stay. This becomes crucial especially in case of rescue operations undertaken at night
- Rehabilitation –VSV facilitates vocational training for women who might need help in rebuilding their lives
- Psychiatrist – A Psychiatrist consults once a fortnight for those who may need his services
The parent organization, Parihar, also runs a Family Counselling Centre where men can also seek counselling and support. In addition, Makkala Sahaya Vani, the helpline for children, reachable on 10924 is available for children in need of rescue or support. All of these are located at the office of the Commissioner of Police on infantry road. Counselling services are available from 10.30 am to 5 pm from Monday to Saturday, and the helpline is operational 24 hours every day.
Your safety is in your hands
Do remember, that in majority of the cases, you have control over what could happen to you. Here are some points to be kept in mind to avoid crisis
- Trust your intuition and be mindful at all times
- Remain calm so that you can act naturally to prevent a crime
- Avoid provoking the attacker
- Engage in conversation to diffuse the tension, be it real or unreal, and get away as soon as you can
- As a last resort, fight if cornered and you have no other way out
All men are not out there to harm you, so do not let such fear come in the way of having normal, pleasant conversations with men. The more we hear about incidents of abuse and rape, the more mindful we need to be to maintain normalcy and sensibility in our relationships with the opposite sex, instead of getting aggressive.
From being Victims to Survivors to ??
Lastly, for those who have had to go through any form of harassment, violence or abuse, I have a thought to share.
Our vocabulary feels extremely limited at times. We call women who have been through difficult circumstances as ‘victims’. We call those who battle it out and try to overcome the victimization as ‘survivors’. The naming usually ends here. We think the most difficult stage is in going from being a victim to a survivor. But we rarely realize that the most difficult step is in going from being a survivor to being just You.
Beyond every incident that may have occurred in a victim or survivor’s life, lies a person whose full potential is yet to be uncovered. Rediscovering that person and being that person is the real challenge. Every tragedy can be overcome, if you have the desire. Please know that help is available and you will not be alone in your efforts.
For your information
Here is a list of the offences against women under the Indian Penal Code
IPC 354 – Outraging the modesty of women
IPC 304B – Dowry death
IPC 306 – Abetment of suicide
IPC 375 – Rape
IPC 376 – Custodial Rape
IPC 494 – Marrying again during lifetime of spouse
IPC 495 – Same offense as IPC 494, but with concealment of former marriage from person with whom subsequent marriage is contracted
IPC 496 – Fraudulent marriage
IPC 497 – Adultery
IPC 498A – Matrimonial cruelty
IPC 509 – Insulting women
IPC 312 – 318 – Causing miscarriage
Women Specific Legislations
- The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956
- The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (28 of 1961) (Amended in 1986)
- The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986
- The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 (3 of 1988)
- Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005
- The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (PREVENTION, PROHIBITION and REDRESSAL) Act, 2013