Discussion: Ensuring women’s safety in Mumbai

At a panel hosted by Citizen Matters Mumbai, a researcher, a legal expert, an activist and a police official weighed in on how to ensure women's safety in Mumbai.

Every woman in India has felt unsafe while accessing public spaces. Even though Mumbai is considered relatively safer for women when compared to other metropolitan cities, incidents of sexual violence are not uncommon in the city. To address women’s safety in Mumbai, Citizen Matters Mumbai held an hour-long virtual discussion with researchers, legal experts, and activists.

The discussion first shed light on the acts of violence that women and other vulnerable genders are subjected to daily and then turned towards the question of how they can be prevented.

Speaking about her experience while researching for her book Why Loiter: Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets, Sameera Khan, who was on the panel, said, “We trailed women, mapped them. We saw them at lunchtime at Nariman Point, we noticed how they came down to the offices to lunch and went back up but didn’t loiter around the street corner, unlike their male colleagues. So their approach to public spaces was very different.”

Explaining further, she added that while women are visible in public spaces in Mumbai, more than a lot of other cities, in terms of complete access to such spaces as full citizens, “you still see them doing jugaad and figuring out their way”. It is not just about women’s safety, she said. “The larger point is also about accessibility for women, differently-abled citizens, senior citizens, children, and other marginalised sections.”

Men against sexual violence

Harish Sadani, the co-founder of the organisation Men Against Violence and Abuse, said while one part of gender-based violence is connected to women’s safety, the problem at large is because of the idea of masculinity. “There is no doubt that it is the men who are the perpetrators of gender-based violence, with a few exceptions. But men were not born violent. It is the society that has created this idea of masculinity and it is our responsibility to change that idea.”

For the longest time, the issue of gender-based violence has been only looked at as a women’s safety issue or as an issue of the oppressed genders, he says. “It is an issue that even men need to address (as perpetrators), and this is not being taken into consideration even today.”

The root cause of the problem is the perception that men hold of women, he said. “Men believe that only they have the (moral) right to public spaces, the right to loiter around without hesitation. And the issue of gender is often perceived as an attack on men because they want their privilege to remain intact.” Men are not the enemy but the social construct of masculinity is and they need to be part of the solution, said Sadani.

Women’s safety: What numbers can miss

Sameera also said that it is important to make the distinction between what data on crimes against women reflects and what it doesn’t. “Data will only reflect women who were courageous to come forward (to file a complaint), give evidence and stay through the process but that is just the tip of the iceberg because there are also a large majority of people who cannot come forward like this.”

Furthermore, she said it is only the cases of extreme cruelty, mostly by strangers, that are recorded in the data. “Incidents of everyday violence that may happen within the confines of homes, where the perpetrators are family members or someone the victim knows goes unrecorded and is less spoken of.”

Cases of violence against women where the perpetrator is a stranger are only 7% while 93% of cases are where the victim knows the perpetrator, said Sameera.

Speaking about the data gap between the lived reality of women and other vulnerable communities in the city and the under-reporting of numbers, Elsa Marie D’Silva, the founder of Red Dot Foundation, said her organization created a Safecity crowd map for anonymous documentation of sexual and gender-based violence to help further women’s safety in the city. “It was an immediate response to the gang rape of Jyoti Singh,” she said.

Elsa Marie joined the discussion during the Q and A session to share her work. “The data on our Safecity map is critical in understanding the kind of violence that is happening and where it happening. We collect data on what happened, where it happened, and the date and time when it happened. This is then triangulated for others to understand the local patterns and trends,” she said.

A screenshot from Citizen Matters event where all the panellists are visible.
Panelists highlighted a number of reasons why cases of sexual violence may go unreported, one of which is the fear of freedom being curtailed by families.

Reshma Jagtap, an advocate and a legal coordinator at SNEHA, who was also on the panel said there is a lot of social stigma attached to taking a legal route. “Women tend to ignore sexual harassment in public spaces instead of reporting it because they do not want to relieve the trauma caused by the legal process,” she said.

And then there is fear of their freedom being curtailed by their families, Reshma said. “In many cases, even when the woman wants to initiate a police complaint or talk to someone about her trauma, the family members hold her back,” she said. Explaining further, she said that this is because of the flawed understanding of virginity and the social value attached to it. “All of this needs to change. Women need to be looked at beyond the ideas of virginity.”

Adding to Reshma’s point, Sameera also said that there needs be a state-wide policy that includes everybody as part of the solution. “We need to train both policemen and policewomen instead of assuming that women in positions of power will by default have the understanding of patriarchy. We all are products of patriarchy, including women.”

Another panelist, Kamlesh Sharma, a Police Naik who was part of the Women Safety Helpline at Mumbai Railways Police Department, believed helpline numbers like the one he worked with can help shield the victim from stigma. “I have ensured privacy of the victim even from her own friends and family while handling cases. This was done by hiding the victim’s identity with the help of other police officials.” He said police don’t have enough resources and personnel to cover every dark corner of the city and that needs to change. “But even society at large lacks awareness about their rights and they need to be made more informed through our education system,” said Kamlesh.

To quantify the extent of how tedious the legal process can be for many, a report by PRAJA Foundation titled ‘State of Policing and Law and Order in Mumbai, 2022’, revealed that 98% of the total cases in Class II serious offences, including murder, crimes against women and cases under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act are pending for trial.

Read more: Explainer: How women can file domestic violence cases in Mumbai

How can society ensure women’s safety?

All the panellists agreed that while law enforcement has a greater burden of ensuring safety, society needs to do better. Women cannot be defined by their roles to others but are citizens first and need to be treated accordingly, said Sameera. “We need to work towards bystanders training where people take up a zero-tolerance policy towards harassment of not just women but even a gay person or a transperson.”

Talking about the ‘bystander syndrome’, Harish said people end up being mute spectators when a crime takes place. “People need to be encouraged to act as responsible citizens…And for that, the fear regarding personal safety needs to be put to rest. There need to be efforts from the police to ensure the citizens won’t be harassed again and again if they are willing to be witnesses.”

The session concluded on a note where the participants hoped for a future where people of all genders will be comfortable in the same shared space, will be able to tolerate each other, and will be sociable at the same time.

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