The increased spotlight on “women’s safety” is personally and intellectually very disturbing for me. I work on gender based violence prevention and I’m one of the creators of a technology for personal safety and increasing reporting of physical and sexual violence. Our technology- “Pukar”- is often misunderstood as a tool for women’s safety.
What’s wrong with that? Women should be safe. Women are unsafe. Women’s safety is clearly a relevant agenda. True. Hmm.
Let me try and explain why I feel its tricky. Let’s try and think about some of the solutions to women’s safety that we’re coming across.
A couple of adolescent village girls in Haryana were molested on their way to school last year. A group of 6 villages got together decided that girls were unsafe on their way to school and something needed to be done. They decided that the girls should no longer go to school. Safety? Tick.
A very common solution is a list of do’s and don’ts.
I’ll add an example at the bottom but some of the common ones include -“you’re very vulnerable on a street at night (read: don’t go out at night)” , “carry a pepper spray, alarm, stun gun, taser, a man (read: you’re weak and dependent)”, “constantly inform us of where you are, or better still, we’ll call you ten times a day”. There are various kinds of such messages, the most powerful and restrictive ones being those from the family. How is any of this contributing positively to the woman’s rights? She can’t go out, has to depend on men and weapons, has no privacy. But safety? Tick.
A very well educated and well intentioned IPS officer once proclaimed at a public event – “The measure of a country’s honor is by the safety of its women and we must at all costs ensure it for the empowerment of women” and that was followed by thunderous applause. I find this very very problematic. I think if my country’s honor was attached to my safety, people would force me to live my life in a vacuum chamber. And I think that’s happening to a lot of women in India. I think women’s empowerment is not their safety but their right to choose otherwise. By placing the onus of women’s safety on the whole society and placing it front and center as a socio-political agenda, we’ve taken a huge chunk of power away from women. Oh, but safety? Tick.
A friend of mine said this about the Uber rape case in Delhi – “While its completely wrong for anyone to get raped, she should have known better than to fall asleep drunk in a cab at night in Delhi”. A lot has been said in the Lok Sabha, in the press and by various leaders about how women are responsible for exciting violence, so I’ll skip those references here. There is a link below in case you want to read.
In its current form, women’s safety is a moral agenda, not a social one. Its no wonder that women who experience any sort of assaults are first screened for moral discrepancies before being deemed victims or survivors. The focus of the work is not on promoting women’s sexual rights and agency, or their mobility but on protecting the honor and dignity of the family, community, village, country. The light at the end of tunnel cannot be just a safe woman; it has to be a free and independent human being with undiluted decision making power. Also, if we directly take up women’s sexual rights then not only will we be able to cover right to no harm, but also promote their independence and agency.
– Aditya Gupta