Three Years After a Horrific Rape, is Delhi Safer for Women?

Dec. 16 marked three years since 23-year old student Jyoti Singh was brutally attacked by a group of men while doing nothing more than riding a bus at night. Now, the case is back in the spotlight, as the youngest perpetrator convicted of the heinous crime was just released from jail, sparking an outcry from advocates and those seeking justice for Jyoti.

When Jyoti was attacked, word quickly spread through the streets of Delhi, rippled throughout India and details of the story were soon broadcast around the world. Incidents of violence against women, as well as government officials’ efforts to prevent such violence, came under intense scrutiny.

In 2012, just weeks before the attack, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) set out to better understand how and where violence occurs in Delhi, conducting research through United Nations Women’s Safe Cities program, which works to reduce violence in Delhi’s public spaces. The results were eye-opening. When asked, only five percent of respondents told our researchers that they feel “safe” or “very safe” in New Delhi’s public spaces. More than 6 in 10 women told us they avoid going out after dark for fear of sexual violence, and 1 in 5 told us they choose not to engage in public life because they fear for their safety. When Jyoti was attacked, it seemed to confirm women’s worst fear: public spaces in Delhi were unsafe and rife with the possibility of physical and sexual assault.

Three years later, it’s important to analyze what, if anything, has changed when it comes to women’s safety in public spaces. We can honor Jyoti’s life and legacy by ensuring that we are taking the appropriate steps to make sure attacks like the one Jyoti experienced never happen again.

Programs like the U.N. Women-funded Safe City Delhi have done this, teaming up with community-based organizations and the Department of Women and Child Delhi (DWCD) to push for change at various levels of the government. As a result, the DWCD has taken strong ownership of the issue, working with departments in charge of roads, buses, public works and education to create concrete action plans to increase women’s safety.

In the three years since the attack on Jyoti, however, the government’s overall response has been mixed. While some departments have instituted strong measures to prioritize responding to violence, other departments are still only in the planning stages. The police department has changed its emergency response system to prioritize calls related to sexual violence in public spaces on par with how they respond to other heinous crimes. Other measures they have taken include outreach to schools, the revitalization of helplines and meetings with community members to encourage bystander intervention.

This type of government action is critical. Laws on the book must be strong and punishments for those who break laws swiftly carried out to ensure that perpetrators of violence know there are consequences for their actions. Sustained action is needed; procedures must be set in place and monitored for effectiveness. But our work cannot stop here.

One of the most important ways to create real and lasting change is to empower women, men and other members of the community to speak out against violence that has, for far too long, been normalized as acceptable behavior. A starting point must be for women to demand their right to access public spaces safely, from bus stops to markets. An effective way to do this is to empower women to play a role in creating safer spaces by working in collectives that host dialogues and explore solutions that work in individual communities. The next, but equally important, step is to engage men and boys in these conversations. Men are not just perpetrators of violence, they are allies-in-waiting who can challenge harmful masculine attitudes and behaviors and play a critical role in preventing violence where they see it, creating safer communities for women and girls.

Other programs that use this approach have proven to be successful. The Safe Cities program used this approach. It also successfully used an innovative participatory method of auditing their public spaces, through “Safety Audits.” These audits consist of groups of women and men mapping out their neighborhoods, marking the areas where they felt unsafe, presenting their findings to local administration and demanding action.

When ICRW returned to neighborhoods throughout Delhi to speak to some of the women who participated in this program, women in the community began to re-think how they approached violent behavior. One woman said, “I was sitting and sewing when a man raised his hand to hit his daughter-in-law. If I was not involved with Jagori [a women’s rights group in India] and [Safe Cities], I would probably have just sat there and seen what was happening. But because I am involved with the group, I got up and quickly held the baba’s hand and stopped him from hitting her and I told him ‘this is wrong, you cannot do this.’”

This story is just one of many from Safe Cities participants that underscores the importance of working within communities to give women and girls the necessary tools to start to change how the community views and tolerates violence.

The underlying causes of violence are complex and we know that violence cannot simply be wiped out overnight, as it has been so deeply ingrained in our culture through inaction. But we also know that preventing and ending violence must start with individuals, in educating men and boys about the consequences of their behavior, in empowering girls and women to be leaders in their community to tackle violence where it exists, and in establishing institutional systems that shun apathy and impunity and respond efficiently.

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Photo via Shutterstock



Nandita Bhatla is the senior technical specialist at the Asia Regional Office of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). Bhatla has nearly 20 years of work in international development and gender, specifically working on issues around gender-based violence and women’s and girls’ rights.