I still remember the tension and anxiety my parents went through when I first came to Delhi, in 2013, for work. The Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder of 2012 was still fresh on everyone’s mind. My parents, like many others, had every reason to worry for their daughter’s safety. Ten years later after the incident shook the country, little has changed in India's national capital or in the rest of the country.
Every girl who steps out of her house, whether or not one belongs to this state, or lives with their families, safety continues to remain a concern – if not blatant, somewhere on the back of their mind.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data released recently also corroborates this and states that the national capital is the most unsafe metropolitan city in India for women, which is closely followed by Mumbai and Bengaluru, respectively.
At the same time, we should also note that crimes against women do not just happen in public spaces. Today, women are increasingly feeling unsafe in their most secure private spaces too.
What does this point to? A systemic failure in addressing women's safety.
Yet another year, yet another alarming set of data that pose grave threat to the very existence of women. But there is barely any chatter.
'Home' Cannot Be Perceived as 'Safe Space'
In India, NCRB data points to a 15 percent increase in crime against women during 2021, that is, when the country was fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the biggest challenges during the lockdown was that women facing domestic violence were locked within homes, along with the perpetrators of crime.
This was startling in many ways. Homes were hitherto believed to be a safe places. However, the pandemic played its role to bring reality to the foreground.
Globally, one in every three women experience physical or sexual violence from their intimate partners. Multiple studies show that the lockdown intensified this.
In many cases, their constant presence gave them very little window to escape violence or even report the crime. Our interactions with victims of domestic violence have revealed how traumatic and harrowing this experience can be, especially if you are locked within along with your abusive partner.
While a lot of NGOs, including Breakthrough India, an organisation which works on the issue of Violence against Women (VAWG), started operational helpline numbers for women to report on Domestic Violence (DV) or seek help. But it was found that a large number of women could not make use of this service, due to lack of accessibility, financial dependency, or even knowledge that there are resources they could reach out to.
Neither of these issues are addressed at a policy level – leaving thousands of women to continue living with the abusive partners. The effects of the pandemic too has not changed this. Like in the case of Asha (name changed), from Bihar.
In March 2020, Asha's husband, who worked as a daily wage worker, and was forced to return home during the migrant crisis during the initial days of COVID-19 pandemic. With very little savings, the family's financial burden increased – having to feed three little children.
Asha bore the brunt.
Despite being subject to violence and abuse every day, could Asha get away from her abusive husband? No, she could not, as she feared the stigma attached to leaving one’s family.
This isn’t just Asha’s story. Women in India faced worse challenges during the lockdown. Yet, India does not have a nationwide campaign to break this stigma, or the other concerns listed above.
Was a Thought Given to Women in Distress Before Lockdown?
The fundamental question that begs an answer in the wake of rising incidence of crime against women is: before closure of access to public spaces, was enough thought given to the fact that women and other vulnerable sections of society, who may lose agency of rescue from violence and exploitation within families?
The minuscule number of cases reported during the lockdown says that there was no mechanism to help women come forward to report crimes during the lockdown.
Beyond the pandemic situation, Indian women have always grappled with the issue of domestic violence from their intimate partners or close family members.
Latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data indicates that, 29.3 percent married women between the ages of 18 and 49 years of age have faced domestic violence/or sexual violence.
3.1 percent pregnant women between the ages of 18-49 have experienced physical violence during their pregnancy. Millions of women like Kritika are often subject to emotional violence, which has a debilitating impact on their physical and mental health.
Overall, the internalised patriarchy and misogyny also enables crime against women at multiple levels. The missing gender perspective at times during policy implementation to infrastructural development also needs to be rectified to ensure the safety of women and children.
The social schemes to empower women needs to be strengthened while ensuring crime against women is handled with urgency and speedy judicial processes. There must be emphasis on strengthening the administrative help for women at various levels, urban, rural and also considering the challenges within the intersectionality of women for building a gender-neutral future for all.
For a safe society for women, and for all, policy changes are needed ground-up. Who else wants to join the fight?
(Deepali Desai is working with Breakthrough – an NGO working for women's rights. She travels extensively to document lives of women, as part of her work. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)