India Fights Back Against Public Sexual Attacks


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Rickshaw drivers work to ensure that male passengers do not harass or assault female passengers. Alka Pande, GPJ India

With sexual assaults and harassment against women seemingly rampant and rising in India, and attitudes among men often tolerant of it, several groups and the government are taking action. Many of these attacks come on increasingly crowded public transportation. Some programs are working to prevent harassment, while others strive to deal with offenses after they occur.

LUCKNOW, INDIA – Business was slow for Inder Kumar, 40, an auto rickshaw driver, one evening in February. He had parked his rickshaw near a crowded crossing in the heart of Lucknow city, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, but had not picked up any passengers in several hours.

Finally, a woman in her 30s got into his auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled, covered vehicle that is a common form of transportation in Lucknow. Two teenage boys who had been lurking for a long time at the curb followed the woman into the rickshaw.

Pleased that his patience had been rewarded with three passengers, Kumar set off on his usual route.

“We had hardly gone a kilometer when I heard a kind of shriek from the back seat,” Kumar says. “I instantly realized that it must be the boys misbehaving with the woman.”

It was evening, Kumar says, and dark inside the rickshaw. The teenagers were trying to grope the woman, he says.

He stopped the rickshaw and gently asked the boys to get out, but they refused, Kumar says. So, instead, he set off at high speed.

“They questioned me as to why I was speeding up, and I simply told them that now this vehicle would stop only at the next police station,” Kumar says, laughing. “My trick worked – the boys were petrified, and they jumped out of the auto rickshaw.”

The whole episode probably took less than 15 minutes, but it was enough to frighten the woman, Kumar says.

“She was shivering with fear; tears were incessantly rolling down her face,” he says.

That woman’s experience is common in India, where sexual harassment spills into public life, including public transportation.

A woman died in 2012 after she was gang-raped on a bus. Earlier that year, a group of men gang-raped a 16-year-old girl in Dabra, in Haryana state, about 180 kilometers (112 miles) west of New Delhi, then circulated videos of the attack.

Those are just two attacks in a spate of violent assaults. Men and women in India say sexual harassment is common there, especially in close spaces in auto rickshaws and buses.

Nation Slow to Address Culturally Rooted Problem

By Alka Pande

The founder of a human-rights organization says women in India have long been treated as the property of men. This culture has resulted in a majority of men saying in a recent survey that women are responsible for their being harassed. After years of ignoring the problem, the Indian government just two years ago instituted a ban on workplace sexual harassment.

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One student, a 22-year-old man who asked that his name not be used, says he frequently harassed women in autos.

“On my friends’ insistence, I used to nudge women’s breasts with my elbow or touch their thighs when the auto rickshaw jumped on potholed roads or applied a sudden brake,” he says.

But now, he is among a growing number of men participating in training sessions to better understand what sexual harassment and assault are, and how they affect women and their communities as a whole. Civil society organizations in Lucknow are working with auto rickshaw drivers such as Kumar and young men such as the student to encourage intervention when women are harassed or assaulted.

Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh government hopes to introduce “Pink Autos” in Lucknow, driven by women and reserved for female passengers.

The perceived increase in harassment on public transportation could be a result of India’s urban population growth. The 2011 urban population was more than 375 million people, nearly 31.2 percent of the country’s total population, according to the 2011 census. This population is expected to grow to 590 million by 2030, according to a 2010 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, a global research organization. Lucknow’s urban population was more than 2.9 million people in 2011, the census found.

As cities hold more people, urban transportation gets crowded and congested, leaving women vulnerable to harassment.

By 2031, Indian city dwellers in 87 major urban centers will take nearly 482 million passenger trips each day, according to a projection from India’s Ministry of Urban Development in a 2008 report.

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A smaller auto rickshaw is meant for two passengers, but they often carry more people than that.

Photos by Alka Pande, GPJ India

Driver Inder Kumar works to ensure that his male passengers do not harass or assault female passengers. He also educates other rickshaw drivers about how to fight sexual assaults.

Many auto rickshaw drivers decorate their vehicles with posters and stickers displaying lips, hearts with arrows, men and women dancing and suggestive slogans.

Since advocates say many sexual-harassment incidents happen in auto rickshaws, Yeh Ek Soch, a youth organization in Lucknow also known as YES, created an orientation program for drivers in 2014. Kumar was among the drivers who participated in the training, called Safe Safar, or safe journey, which was held in coordination with the police’s Women Dignity Cell.

“The idea is to sensitize the drivers so that they can intervene if something like this happens in their auto rickshaw,” says Abhishek Balodi, a field staff member for YES.

In the program, drivers watch films, read brochures and discuss gender sensitivity.

Kumar says he learned that even a small incident of sexual harassment can leave a scar on a woman’s mind.

“We also learned to imagine our own sisters, daughters and wives facing such incidents,” he says.

Twenty auto rickshaw drivers have successfully completed the program.

Despite the YES program’s early success, the Uttar Pradesh government believes that segregated transportation, in which women and men have separate public transportation, is the answer.

The state government introduced “pink” buses in the past. While programs are still ongoing, so many women wanted to ride the buses that the programs are not considered successful, according to Balodi. Women had to wait hours for a spot on one of the buses.

The state government recently announced a fleet of “pink autos.”

“These women-special auto rickshaws will have a lot of special services like GPS, women drivers and special stops, ensuring all of which will take time,” says K. Ravinder Naik, transportation commissioner and managing director of Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corp.

It’s not clear when that program will begin.

There are other efforts to get men to change their behavior.

Saajhi Duniya, a human-rights organization, has carried out awareness programs in six secondary schools in Lucknow since May to combat sexual harassment on public transportation.

“We focus on students up to 18 years of age as boys harass women also due to peer pressure and to establish their masculinity among their friends,” says professor Roop Rekha Verma, former vice chancellor of Lucknow University and founder of Saajhi Duniya.

YES also teaches students at the University of Lucknow about the trauma women experience when they are sexually harassed. Some men say that training has been effective. The 22-year-old man who admitted to groping women in auto rickshaws says his attitude has changed since he participated in the YES training, adding that he now understands that sexual harassment damages a woman’s self-confidence.

“I learned to see things from another person’s point of view,” he says.

But some women say institutional change is needed, as well as changing male attitudes.

Sudha Singh, 34, used to travel to work daily by bus and auto rickshaw.

In the winter of 2010, she was traveling in an auto rickshaw with a middle-aged man who attempted to touch her, she says. She confronted the man, but the behavior continued. Singh asked the auto rickshaw driver to stop at the nearest police station, but the result was not what she expected.

“What horrified me the most was the behavior of the policeman who let the man go with a mild warning and told me nonchalantly that he could not hang him for such a small thing,” Singh says.

While walking out of the police station, the man threatened revenge for her actions, Singh says.

A few days later, she took a loan of 8,000 Indian rupees ($123) to buy a used scooter.

On some days when her scooter is being repaired or serviced, she takes public transportation and speaks up whenever she sees a woman being harassed, Singh says.

A few months ago, while traveling by bus, she saw a man rubbing himself against a young woman. They were both standing, as there were no vacant seats, and Singh waited for the woman to react but saw that she was too nervous and scared.

“I kicked the man from behind, and he fell,” Singh says. She told people in the bus what the man had been doing, and they chased him out of the bus, she says.

The harassment women face is so widespread that sometimes they choose to stay home, Singh says.

Last year, her niece suddenly stopped going to college, Singh says. She found that the girl was tired of being groped and leered at during her daily commute to college.

She persuaded her niece to return to college after the girl bought a small scooter for transportation.

Kumar, who scared the teenage boys away when they harassed his passenger, says he took the woman directly to her home that night.

“I listened to my conscience,” he says. “But most drivers play safe and avoid intervening in such cases.”

Kumar says he knew how to react in this situation because he had attended the Safe Safar training program that sensitized auto rickshaw drivers to the harassment of women passengers.

“I have realized what kind of mental trauma women go through and how badly it impacts their psyche after they face sexual harassment while traveling in public transport for work or studies,” he says.

Kumar says he tries to share his new awareness with other auto drivers.

“Some of them understand, but many just brush aside the issue, saying they are more concerned about their earnings and do not want to get involved in such matters,” Kumar says. “Because if the matter reaches the police, the auto driver is also harassed and it affects his earning.”

Balodi, the YES field staff member, says harassment of women in public can be reduced only when the men are engaged in the solution. He says he is inspired and motivated when he hears of the positive actions taken by men such as Kumar. They are the pioneers, he says.

“Soon there will be a chain of men who will be working hand in hand for the safety of women,” Balodi says.

Alka Pande, GPJ, translated some interviews from Hindi.