Indian Women Reclaim Buses for International Women’s Day

Screen shot 2014-03-06 at 1.02.42 PMWhen I spent a week in Delhi, India, to attend an international conference on women’s safety, I saw many public buses around the city as I walked or rode in auto-rickshaws. Each of the crowded buses was almost entirely full of men. It was so rare to see women on a bus that if I did, I’d point it out to my traveling companion.

The lack of women on buses is due in large part to women feeling unsafe in public spaces. In a survey released last year by UN Women and the International Center for Research on Women, researchers found that 95 percent of girls and women in Delhi saw public spaces as unsafe. Nine out of 10 girls and women said they had experienced sexual aggression or violence in public spaces in the city during their lifetime.

Then, in a 2010 survey by UN agencies, harassed women said buses were the least safe form of public transportation: Unwanted verbal harassment, leering and touching were widely cited as problems. Stories such as the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Delhi student on a bus in late 2012, an atrocious incident that prompted protests across India, certainly contribute to feelings of insecurity.

While some may think that keeping women off of the streets and out of buses is the best way to keep them safe, the global human rights organization Breakthrough disagrees. They want women to know that they have the right to occupy public places, and suggest that having more women in public places can help reduce harassment.

To encourage more women to ride buses in Delhi, on March 1 they launched a Board the Bus campaign, which runs through March 8, International Women’s Day.

“We’re calling on women who don’t normally take the bus to board the bus with us,” digital media strategist Radhika Takru says. “We’re telling women who take the bus regularly that they don’t have to go it alone. If everyone goes together, there is a very real chance we can make the bus—or any public space—safer.”

The Board the Bus website encourages people to ride the bus to “get people thinking, talking, and acting,” and to “take back the space that was always yours.” Participants can tweet about their experiences with the hashtag #BoardtheBus and share a photo of their ride.

Leading up to the week, Breakthrough held a series of online and on-the-ground activities like flash mobs and radio spot ads to generate a public discussion about women’s safety in public spaces.

Adding more women to buses will not immediately or entirely eliminate harassment, though, and there are still safety tactics that many women who ride buses feel they must take. One is riding with a friend or in a group. Explains one woman,

We have a fixed time. All five of us girls met in the bus and we travel together every day to work and back. And after three years now, I feel they are like my sisters now. I share everything with them.

Other women only ride the bus during the day. Farhana, a student, says, “I only feel safe traveling by bus in the daytime because it’s crowded and there are less chances of being in trouble. I prefer not to board a bus after five in the evening.”

Twenty-five percent of seats are reserved for women near the front of buses. When I asked her about her thoughts on this kind of sex segregation, Takru says, “I’m opposed to segregation as a ‘solution’ to the issue, but I can’t deny it provides many women with a sense of security, and others with freedom to travel independently.”

Clearly, women cannot solve this alone, and it is important to bring men into the conversation. Breakthrough’s campaign encourages men to participate and to speak out if they witness harassment  on buses. They can “Be That Guy” who works to create a world where everyone is treated respectfully.

They can also educate other men about the inappropriateness of their behavior. Recently, students at Whistling Woods International, a film school in India, released a PSA meant to force men to consider how creepy and inappropriate their leering is, including on buses. Its powerful message has been viewed more than 3 million times.

If you live in Delhi, consider joining the campaign and boarding a bus this week. On the last day of the campaign, March 8, join hundreds of women at 4 p.m. at Connaught Place Bus Stop. Help make those spaces safer through your presence and, if necessary, bystander intervention.

If you’re not in Delhi, spread the word about the campaign to those who are—and you can participate by traveling through Delhi on your own virtual bus. You can also consider riding a bus in your own community. Chances are, harassment is a problem there too, making many people, especially women, feel unsafe.

Ending harassment requires community involvement; how will you be involved?

 Screenshot taken from the Breakthrough Facebook page


Holly Kearl is the founder of the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment and author of two books about street harassment, including the just-released  50 Stories about Stopping Street Harassers. She also works as an international consultant for the United Nations’ Global Safe Cities Initiative.





  1. MidnightSunshine says:

    Stiffer punishment for sexual harassment should be in place, and women should carry mace in hand when using public transportation.

  2. Another example of how women are disempowered by sexual-harassment. If you can’t take public transportation, you may have to give up a lot of job opportunities–and opportunities of all sorts.

  3. Hooray for women! Stand in your power, for that is what strikes such terror within men. Stand in your power that is the unifying power of the Mother, who loves all her children. Men and women are healed when we allow and honor the power-with each other.

  4. I personally, don’t worry about sexual harrassment, I have learn it’s my reaction or better yet just be the example you want to teach.. If you get angry, the harasser has occomplished his mission, I would probably just say; your good, laugh and say you are full of your self, or say Enough. Or say a turn off, I’m sick , I’m old. Keep communication real simple a d light. You may be the one that changes their harassing behavior. People are not born to be Bad , their just haven’t realized those poor behavior, I say if someone is acting up, they are themselfs trying to get heard. Doesn’t mean we buy into the ways, but how we react can either fuel, or defuse situation. Stay calm. Don’t show fear, He that is in me is Greater than he who is in the world. Breath, let your eyes be soft, Know your creator is with you in all circumstances. Pray, inwardly. ( Holy Spirit Will guide you and lift you above all that is not his will. )

    • That is a very positive way to handle things. Unfortunately for most, those who rape and commit atrocities to women can not be reasoned with. Besides, isn’t it about time we stop telling victims what they should or shouldn’t do? Isn’t it time we stop shaming them into believing that it is their responsibility to prevent evil from approaching them? Isn’t it time we send the message instead to the perpetrators that it will no longer be tolerated? Isn’t it time to send them the message that the gift of life and freedom will forever be taken from them? Isn’t it time to put these crimes in the categories they belong and to give harsher and swifter punishments? I believe it is WAY PAST TIME. With the amount of violence against women, it is surprising they haven’t risen up and destroyed the men. But most of us lack the evil, entitled male dna it requires to do so. I am glad. Nothing worse than becoming a monster, even if it means one’s own suffering and death.

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