Indian Women Reclaim Buses for International Women’s Day

When 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 an anti-street harassment expert, writer, and nonprofit professional based in the Washington, D.C. area. Her work has been cited by the United Nations, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, ABC News, NPR, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire Magazines, Feministing, and Jezebel.