Given its abundance of resources and diversity of culture, the national capital has much to offer, except a safe environment for women. The universal instinct to always be on alert for predators multiplies manifold for marginalized genders in Delhi – the leading city of India.
According to the latest report of the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), Delhi has emerged as the most unsafe metropolitan city for women, outdoing eight union territories in the country for this dubious distinction. Two minor girls were raped every day last year in the national capital, it revealed.
Young girls grow up shielding themselves from harassment such as stalking and eve-teasing, littered with sexual innuendos and sexual assault. While many long to relocate to avoid a life full of fear, this is hardly feasible for economically weaker sections.
When 31-year-old Manu leaves her house to take the bus on Route no. 544 from the Raj Nagar stop, she shields her body with her handbag. The bag has a spare key strategically placed in the front pocket, and is pointy.
“I use it as a weapon because too many incidents have happened that compelled me to resort to this method of defence. Once, a man standing behind me in the bus masturbated on my leg. I was aghast initially, but with the help of others, dragged him to the cops. So many times, I was groped on the bus. How many times can you complain? FIRs are a hassle and besides, cops don’t always cooperate”, she says.
Manu’s office is in Badarpur, where she works as a receptionist at a real estate firm. “Disgusting” incidents during her 30-km commute made her increasingly fearful, to the extent that she considered quitting the job to look for something closer to home. “But I was eve-teased and molested a lane away from my house, so I dropped the thought. Because no place is safe”, she says.
She is now haunted by “thoughts of abduction” and hence decided to carry a sharp key, so she has “something to hit back” as she walks home after getting off the bus around 8 pm.
Manu is just one of the thousands of women who face disturbing incidents en route to office.
Saleha cycles to the Maujpur main road to work as a tailor in Mustafabad. It takes her 15 minutes to reach. Within the short span, she is eve-teased “four out of six days”. Now, she says, she is “used to it”.
“The most outrageous part of it is that some of these men are known to my kin. No one does anything about it. When I once developed the courage to report to the police, my family deterred me because apparently, their future is at stake and eve-teasing is just loose jokes”, the 26-year-old says.
“While some whistle at me, some comment on my clothes, and some intentionally run up to me to scare me while I am riding my bicycle. Once, I fell and they laughed. I was angry and humiliated”, Saleha says.
The young tailor is saving money to open her own boutique in her garage to make a better living and “feel safe”. She has already made a catalog for it.
It’s just not women with low income who feel vulnerable. Malini, an IT professional, drives her own “secure” car to her office in Gurugram to limit incidents of sexual harassment. However, she is often stalked by “mischievous” men, who follow her in their car for long distances and try to intimidate her.
“They randomly slow down their car and pull down the window to say nasty things. I usually ignore them, but I dread the consequences when I am accosted by drunk men”, she says, adding that the work-from-home days were “stress-free”.
She says that she is “least surprised” by the NCRB report. The 29-year-old is “exhausted” and considers moving to Hyderabad as fear has become a constant companion.
Packing bags to switch cities out of fear is a privilege available to a handful. For many women – and minor girls – even home is not a safe space.
Ranjini (name changed), 33, often leaves home for work with bruises on her face. She works as a house help in four homes. Married off at a tender age, Rajini migrated to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh’s Badayun with her husband, who beats her black and blue. She is unwilling to approach the police because she doesn’t want to “invite unwanted attention” to her home.
Every week, she misses work because she is unable to get out of bed. A victim of domestic violence and marital rape, Rajini works to feed her family of six, including five children. Her husband does not work regularly “out of his own wishes”. Recently, the number of mouths to feed increased as her two unemployed brothers joined them.
While her home is a cage of violence, her journey to work is that of constant harassment. “These auto drivers keep calling me to sit in their vehicle. Despite saying no, they insist and ogle. At times, they drive along with me slowly. But I don’t have the mental bandwidth to react”, Rajini says.
However, the young mother is always fearful of her daughter’s whereabouts. As soon as she reaches a house for work, she gives her daughter, also a house help, a call.
In her world, bringing food to the table is a more humungous challenge than harassment on the street.
Unsafe at home
Khadijah Faruqui founded her organization The Alternate Space, in 2016 to aid women and children who are suffering sexual and domestic violence. Today, she receives over 15 calls a day for help. Faruqui is also credited for creating the 181 helpline soon after the gruesome 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape and murder case that rocked the country.
“We receive countless number of cases against minors. Especially after the pandemic, criminal cases against and by children have exponentially increased – mainly because social media has opened a whole new world where there is no check and they can contact just about anyone”, Faruqui says.
Talking about the scale of sexual violence against women and children, Faruqui says that there are times when male relatives target children in helpless situations, especially when they know that they will get away with the crime.
“Recently, a desperate woman called me and revealed her ordeal. She was married off to an intellectually disabled person by her aunt who raised her after she was orphaned. Her in-laws were rich. Soon after her marriage, her father-in-law and brothers-in-law, made sexual attempts on her because of her husband’s state. Besides, she was made to clean the huge three-storey house, do all the dishes, without any help”, she says.
Faruqui continues, “She had two daughters with her husband – 11 and 7 years old. One day, when her elder daughter was in school and she went upstairs after cleaning the kitchen on the ground floor, she saw that her younger brother-in-law, son of elder brother-in-law, and her husband were bare bottomed. Her 7-year-old daughter was lying naked on the bed with these men on top of her. When she started screaming, she was thrashed by her in-laws.”
“We often receive this kind of case. Once we received a case where a minor girl was being sexually abused by her elder brother. Her father was in the administration, but never filed a report until we intervened”, the Executive Director of TAS says.
The activist highlights that POCSO crimes are rising because there are more acquittals than convicts. “Firstly, because of a lack of Special Courts – only two in Delhi (Karkardooma and Saket), and secondly, because survivors turn hostile as cases drag for years. Then, courts acquit the accused and these men walk free again in society”, she says.
In Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar area, Young Urban Women, and organisation set up by activists to legally and emotionally aid women who face eve-teasing, stalking, sexual harassment and assault. One of the major barriers to women’s safety is the lack of well-lit roads in the capital, as pointed out by YUW.
“In Delhi, people boast of broad, picturesque roads that are usually put forth to describe the national capital. But that is hardly the real part of Delhi. Those are just the wealthy regions within the capital. Majority of lanes, narrow or not, that do not fall under the posh part of Delhi are dark because there are no street lights. And crimes occur without a deterrence, and in secrecy,” says Preeti, the coordinator of YUW.
Street light ends with rich localities, she continues. “Every day we receive 70 to 80 stalking cases a week. This is just about the ones who show some courage to reach out to us. Stalking young teen girls and women with no fear of consequences has become a norm. We are trying to change that by creating awareness and reporting the same to police,” she says, adding that most of stalking incidents occur when women and girls are back of college, school or tuitions.
The maximum complaints have been registered through YUW are within 15 to 28.
“We try to empower women as much as we can because no one works on boys. There are plenty of laws for women but the issue is that hardly any of them are aware of those. So, our attempt should be to increase legal awareness to erase the constant feeling of helplessness. With respect to police, officials must take a round in every locality in routine intervals,” Preeti says.
Faruqui sees hope in the NCRB report because “that means at least crimes are being recorded”. There will be no numbers when crimes go unreported, so at least the police records are growing, indicating that women are coming forward to lodge FIRs, she says.
Besides, there are many strident NGOs and organizations that firmly work for the survivors and take up their battle, Faruqui says, adding that unlike many other cities, Delhi has a strong base of empowered women.