Women’s safety: Is self help the best help?

Crimes against women are on the rise and every day, women everywhere are losing their life and liberty as easily and as carelessly as bugs get crushed under our feet.

Jyoti Singh Pandey. Qandeel Baluchi.

Shakti steel mills. Kopardi. Rohtak.

Dalit. Muslim.

22-year-old. 14-year-old. 6-year-old.

Strangulation. Rape. Acid attack.

The crimes are varied, as are the ages of the victims, the location, their religion. Even the method of attack. What’s common in every one of these cases, and more of the kind, is the fact that all of the victims are women.

Crimes against women are on the rise and every day, women everywhere are losing their life and liberty as easily and as carelessly as bugs get crushed under our feet. But we are always able to move on, carry on with our everyday life as these always happen to “someone else”, some place else.

Until it strikes close to home.

Vinodini, Karaikal.

Swathi, Chennai.

Naveena, Villupuram.

Young, innocent women, murdered in broad daylight, in public. Gone, in the most brutal fashion because of young men who considered themselves to be in love with them and retaliated in the most heinous fashion when their feelings were spurned.

What has this done to the women of Chennai? Has it made them feel unsafe in public, wary of their surroundings? Compared to the rest of the country, Chennai has historically enjoyed a ‘safe’ image, and been considered a place where a woman is free to go about her business without being harassed. Has that image been tarnished now? What has wrought this change?

Murders, most gruesome

Vinodhini was a young, educated woman from Karaikal, near Puducherry. In November 2012, she lost her life after a man threw nitric acid on her. Her face suffered extensive burns and her eyes, ears and nose were irrevocably damaged. After extensive treatment in hospitals in Puducherry and Chennai, she lost her life.

Her assailant had loaned money to her father and wished to marry Vinodhini. After his suit was refused by the father, the assailant Jayapal bought a highly corrosive acid and threw it over the father and daughter, even as they were standing in public, on a bus station no less!

On June 24 of this year, IT professional Swathi was murdered at the Nungambakkam train station, by a young man who professed “love” for her but when she didn’t return his feelings, hacked her to death. The nondescript killer and the casual manner in which he went about the killing made excellent grist for the social media mill and in turn, has made the women of the city more nervous about safety. Women spending a majority of their day alone, at home, at workplaces, in transit on the streets are suddenly more aware of how vulnerable they are and more wary than ever.

A scant week after Swathi’s shocking murder, 17-year-old Villupuram (a town in interior Tamil Nadu) school girl Naveena was set on fire by 32-year-old Senthil Kumar. Her ‘crime’? Refusing his advances!

Some tips for protection, from S-KAPE

  • Walk with your head up, observing your surroundings. Don’t walk with your head down!
  • When walking to your car or out of a mall or an indoor location, don’t be distracted on the phone
  • Always keep people informed where you are going and when you are likely to arrive. Always give accurate travel times, so people will know if you are late.
  • When walking, walk on the footpath. If you are forced to walk on the road, walk towards the on-coming traffic, so you can spot a vehicle slowing down near you
  • Never board an auto or taxi if there is another male seated next to the driver. Either ask them to get down or you get down & choose another auto/ taxi.
  • Vary your routine. Most kidnappings, assaults, etc. are because the attackers were aware of the victims’ routines, timings, vehicle routes, etc.

Are women learning to help themselves

In the months since, life on the streets has returned to its usual cadence. Just like it did after Vinodhini, Sarika Shah and all the other young women whose lives were snuffed out. But thanks to social media, the buzz from Swathi’s killing remained a lot longer in public consciousness, while Naveena’s barely made a ripple in the city.

Women are more cautious, more aware of where they are and make it a point to notice any strange male hovering in their vicinity. Staying in groups, being cautious of the strangers in their social group and being vigilant are well and good but is it enough? Isn’t it better to learn how to protect themselves, make themselves less vulnerable?

These questions lead one to explore one of the very basic premises of self protection: Have the recent incidents caused a surge in the number of women signing up for self-defence classes?

The answer is not very clear.

“Yes and no”, says Sreeram, the city’s leading Krav Maga specialist. For the past year, there has been a spike in the number of women wanting to learn the Israeli street fighting method, so much so that from 1-2 women per class, Sreeram’s now running women only sessions. However, there hasn’t been a massive jump in ‘individuals’ signing up for classes with them. Companies that used to book him for an info session on Krav Maga are now asking him to conduct a module of 20 hours for their employees, especially the female employees.

Photo: Krav Maga Tamil Nadu

Photo: Krav Maga Tamil Nadu

Zhayynn James, of S-KAPE self-defence centre, agrees. His dojo gets bulk booking from corporates looking to equip their shift workers and vulnerable workers but individual women signing up for a session are still minimal. “It stems from the fact that in Chennai we see this as an aberration, not a sign of the times we live in. People still feel this is rare. It’s the same reason people don’t wear helmets. We always believe accidents happen to someone else”, says he.

The police too agree that learning self defence is important, not just for women citizens but also police themselves. In a recent interview with Citizen Matters Chennai, V Balakrishnan, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Mylapore affirmed, “Our commandos are taught self-defence, unarmed combat and other defence tactics. But, definitely, for other police personnel also, learning self-defence is helpful. Not just to protect themselves while on duty, but also to protect women in distress.”

From conversations around the city, however, it seems that despite the fact that violence against women is on the rise, women are still not taking the proactive step of learning to protect themselves, not in significant numbers at least. They are still sticking to the ‘safe’ practices of being in groups and not inviting attention.

But, why not? Why haven’t women beaten a path to the nearest self-defence classes and learnt to protect themselves? And signed up their girls too?

Many of the young mothers I spoke to on the subject have not taken steps to learn self-defence themselves but were 100 percent sure that once their children were older, they would definitely be enrolled in classes. When I asked why they haven’t done so for themselves, some cited a lack of time.

“I don’t think I would have the time although I would wish to. I might go for alternatives like a pepper spray… but it would be great if employers offer an option or periodical workshops for their women employees so we can make use of it,” says Haripriya M, a working professional and mother of a 2-year-old girl.

Payal P, who has three daughters, the youngest a tot, has enrolled her older two for karate classes. This is possible, she says, purely because the school conducts these sessions and has made them mandatory. She says, “I think it would be hard to incorporate that in our schedule had it not been covered in school” and asks an interesting question – most schools have made learning of art and other co-curricular activities compulsory but not all introduce self-defence training for their students. Which is more important?

Another mother I spoke to presented an interesting contrast. Sunita V, mum to two young girls, found herself in a quandary. “I feel I should [sign them up for self-defence classes], because they are girls, but then I wonder what is the message I am giving them. I am on the fence.”

Preeti Aghalayam, president of the local running body Chennai Runners and a mother of a tween herself, sums it up thus: “I stick to well known, well lit routes or go with a group of friends on my run. But my child is growing up, soon she will be on these roads without me. I think it is important to have the kind of self-confidence that comes from knowing that one doesn’t have to collapse and whimper at the first sign of physical assault. I would like to assume that the world is safe enough that many of us will go through life without having to really use these skills. But still, one should be able to defend oneself if needed.”

The search for solutions

What is the solution, then? If women are being targeted with alarming regularity, how can they protect themselves with or without self defence training? 

“By being aware”, says Zhayynn firmly. “The best self-defence is awareness. Today everyone is hunched over their phones, earphones plugged in. They have no awareness at all because they are so glued to their mobiles. When in public, the mobile phone should be used only on a need-to basis. Your field of vision is drastically limited when you look down at your phone two inches from your face. Look up, look around. DON’T look down. Unplug your earphones. If you remove your advantage of vision and sound, you are seriously hampering yourself.”

Sreeram believes that the solution for this cannot come about overnight. “The long-term solution is education. Educating boys from the time they are in school that a female must be respected, that “eve-teasing” and stalking are not “love” and objectifying women is just not done is the way to curb the violence against women. This will not happen overnight. In the short-term, we need decisive action from the law against the perpetrators of these crimes, that serve as strong deterrents to anyone entertaining such thoughts. Swift retribution from the law is vital.”

Unfortunately for us, women have always been perceived as the weaker sex. But we needn’t let external societal perceptions affect our sense of well-being. It is time to stop being reactive and take control, instead. It is beyond time we ensure that we have a handle on our personal safety, that we do not come across as victims or weak but as strong individuals, well capable of fending for ourselves.

Physically, yes and most definitely, mentally too.

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