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All aboard the ladies special


07 / 2009

More than 80% of women in Delhi say they are sexually harassed on public transport. The paternal administration’s only response is to further sexualise public spaces by offering ladies special buses with curtains to protect women from the male gaze.

Earlier this year, in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the department for women and child welfare announced that a series of awareness programmes and workshops would be launched in Delhi to sensitise people on women’s safety. The department would start with a focus on the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), Delhi Police, Department of Education, and Market Associations. A working committee on women’s safety has also been formed. Kiran Walia, health minister in Delhi, said, “The idea is to make the people proud of their city, as well as sensitise them on the issue of women’s safety.”

The Delhi government is doing its best to give its public transport system a makeover before the Games in 2010 and also progress towards the 2020 master plan which seeks to redefine Delhi with state-of-the-art infrastructure.

But it is appalling that the government needs an event like the Commonwealth Games to sit up and take notice of women’s safety.

The mobility of women is challenged by the sexual harassment and sexual abuse that is rampant on public transport. An overwhelming 90% of women, according to the Delhi Human Development Report (2006), feel that public transport is unsafe for women. Anghrija, a 23-year-old student studying law in Delhi University says, “There’s hardly a day when one travels in a bus and is not harassed in some manner.”

Most crime reports reiterate this. A survey done by Delhi Police in 2004 showed that almost 45% of reported cases of molestation in the city happened in public buses, and another 25% on the roadside. While 40% of women surveyed said they felt unsafe after dark, 31% spoke of feeling unsafe even in the afternoon, reported a national daily in 2005.

Women’s groups in Delhi are very concerned about this growing menace. Since 2007 Jagori, a women’s organisation, has had a Safe Delhi Campaign to make public spaces safer for women. According to a survey conducted by Jagori among 500 women, more than 80% reported harassment in buses and other public transport and 62% on the roadside.

This violence on public transport manifests in various forms. In a study conducted in 2007 by this writer in Delhi and Bombay, 90% of the women surveyed said they have faced unwanted suggestive looks/staring while travelling in public transport, and 80% have faced unwanted touching. A substantial percentage of women (54%) have faced unwanted sexual teasing, jokes and remarks and another 52% said they have been followed. The nature of this violence is mostly sexual: there is constant ogling (especially at breasts), lewd comments, gestures. Worse, women report that they are groped and that men rub themselves up against them.

In the same study by this writer, 82% of females said they fear travelling in public transport at odd hours, especially at night, in comparison to only 22% of men. This was confirmed by an ASSOCHAM study in October 2008 – every second working woman feels insecure, especially during night shifts in all the major hubs of economic activity, especially BPOs/IT, hospitality, civil aviation, nursing homes and garment industry.

The problem becomes more acute with the recent murders of Soumya Vishwanathan and Jigeesha Ghosh in Delhi and the chief minister’s remark that women should not get “so adventurous” and travel late at night. Apart from this, there are also much graver concerns like stone/acid-throwing and rape. Instances of rape, sexual abuse and harassment repeatedly reported in newspapers or other media – often sensationalised or blaming the female victims – have created an atmosphere of fear.

The fear is accentuated at two levels. On Bhaidooj in October 2007 Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit announced that girls and women would not have to pay for their fare while travelling on buses to meet their brothers. The State thus adopted the paternal and brotherly role of protector, sending out the message that women will always be vulnerable. The State also constantly advises women to be prepared for violence, putting the burden of protection and prevention on women themselves.

The insensitive handling of cases by the State machinery and society – often accusing women of ‘provoking’ the harassment – makes most women prefer to remain silent when harassed. Also, most women are abused when the bus they are traveling in is very crowded. In such a crowded situation, it becomes difficult for the woman to tell who touched/groped her.

The challenge is to define these forms of abuse and coercion as sexual harassment and not as eve-teasing, which trivialises the situation. Further, the conventional definition of violence against women must be broadened beyond acts of physical and sexual aggression to include more subtle forms of abuse that involve mental and emotional violence.

In the study conducted by this writer, none of the women said that they had lodged a formal complaint to any kind of authority. There is a big difference therefore, in the crime reported and the actual experiences of women. Crime statistics only reflect those crimes that are reported to the police. Therefore, violence experienced by women on public transport never enters the crime statistics, even though it is serious and rampant.

It is also important to note that segregation of spaces like an all-women’s space contributes to the already existing sexualisation of space. When we see this in the context of equality and equal rights, women are denied equal opportunity, and instead already existing distinctions of masculine vs feminine areas harden. One can see this happening in the context of the ladies special buses in Delhi, which are curtained, a reminder by the State that women must be protected from the male gaze.

At the same time, women activists like Kalpana Viswanath who have worked extensively on this say, “Ladies Special buses/transport may not be a solution, but in a situation where women and girls still face harassment in buses, they are strategies nonetheless and it is important for us to work on a multi-pronged strategy. While the problem has several dimensions, the State and its institutions must take responsibility for making public spaces safer and accessible for all. »

In 2005 the government of Delhi came up with a compendium, Making Women More Secure in Delhi: Towards Confidence-building and Tackling Sexual Harassment.

This compendium talks about the initiatives taken by the government to confront rising crime against women. The government recognises that Delhi is not a safe city for women, and several mechanisms need to be put in place.

The section on the transport department talks about services for women. It documents that eight seats are reserved for women in DTC buses and women home guards have been deployed on different routes. There is mention of 23 ladies special buses provided during peak hours. In case of any incident being reported, the bus has to be taken to the nearest police station or van. The onus for reporting such incidents is on the bus staff rather than the victim. Women’s helpline numbers are to be displayed inside as well as outside the buses. Special checking needs to be conducted during Holi and other celebrations.

It also mentions auto- and taxi-drivers being trained in batches to sensitise them on issues relating to women’s security. There is a proposal under consideration by the Directorate General of Home Guards to offer the services of 10,000 Home Guards who could be issued passes by DTC to do the rounds on various DTC buses to keep eve-teasing and harassment of women in check.

Most of these directions are still to be implemented. Women’s helpline numbers are very much displayed in the buses, but they do not seem to work. Keeping in mind the safety of women commuters, a Delhi-based NGO has started training women as taxi-drivers. But these services will cater only to a certain class of women who are able to afford them.

Jagori’s Safe Delhi Campaign was initiated to mobilise citizens to act and make a change and also make public places and modes of public transport safe for women. As part of this campaign, gender training sessions were conducted with DTC inside a stationary DTC bus to give a feel of the real environment and also place the drivers and conductors literally in the shoes of DTC passengers. As part of the same campaign, autorickshaw drivers also joined in and advertisement campaigns were done.

These campaigns are successful to an extent, but there is a need to involve women in policymaking for urban transport and development. Gender sensitivity is also required to address the frequency, routes, location of bus-stands and their design in case of transportation planning. Indeed, democratic processes to encourage genuine people’s participation, including that of women, need to be developed.


femme et violence, femme, organisation de femmes, sécurité publique, transport urbain

, Inde


This article is also available in French: A bord du « ladies special »

For more informations on women issues in Delhi, see the site and activities of Jagori, a non-governmental organization based in Delhi


Articles et dossiers

Shreya BHATTACHARYA, « All aboard the ladies special », in InfoChange, Juillet 2009

InfoChange (News and analysis on social justice and development issues in India) - Centre for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS) C/12, Gera Greens, NIBM Road, Kondhwa, Pune-411 048, INDIA - Inde - - infochangeindia (@)

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