Sexual harassment and the city

Dipesh stares through thick black sunglasses at a gang of young men on a crowded Mumbai train. The gang scream sexual abuse at the women on the platform and leer at girls on the train. Dipesh, however, isn’t wearing ordinary glasses – there’s a spy camera built into them and he’s live streaming the scene to the Mumbai police. He quickly messages the local officers, and they jump on the offenders at the next stop.

Public sexual harassment and molestation, or ‘eve-teasing’ as it is flippantly known in India, is a common sight on Mumbai’s overcrowded railways. A study in 2012, showed that out of 6,000 female students at a south Mumbai college, 97 percent had been sexually harassed.

Armed with his smartphone, spy glasses and a handful of volunteers, 33-year-old activist Dipesh Tank has managed to catch over one hundred train harassers in the past year. His tireless efforts have made him a minor online Bombay celebrity, as #MeToo tweets flood the internet. But his vigilante citizen’s justice is an exception. Most of the time, sexual harassers have nothing to fear.

In Mumbai and Delhi, commuter trains have compartments reserved specifically for women. While this has eased the pressure on women, it has not solved the problem of sexual harassment.

Out of 500 women who Dipesh and his friends interviewed at one station in Northern Mumbai, 84 percent said that they faced sexual harassment ‘every day’. When asked about police action on the matter, 74 percent said they had never seen the police act on the issue.

Women are often reluctant to report a man for public sexual assault or harassment. One report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in 2016, found that only 11 percent of sexual harassment cases were reported to the Mumbai Police. Only a fraction of these cases end up as convictions. Police apathy and women’s fear of judgement contribute to the low figure.

Women in India are still chronically underrepresented in the country’s workforce.

Women make up just 16.2 percent of the whole urban workforce in 2015-2016, a figure that has barely shift from the 1970s.3 There is little doubt, as Dr Arundhati Bhattacharyya argues, that the high levels of sexual harassment and the low ratio of female workers in the workforce are linked.

“There is a huge problem,” said the prominent feminist activist, Flavia Agnes, “Patriarchy is so firmly entrenched into the Indian male psyche that men think it is their birth right to ogle at women and pass lewd comments about them.”

“There are no overnight solutions,” continues Flavia, “Mindsets change gradually. Until then, greater vigilance on the part of the police will help women feel secure.”

Outside Mumbai the situation is far worse. Across the country, NGOs constantly criticise police forces’ systemic inability to take issues facing Indian women, such as rape, sexual assault, domestic violence or trafficking, seriously.
This has barely shifted from the early 1970s when the figure was 13.4 percent.

Often by the time the police act the harassers have vanished into Mumbai’s seething mass of over 20 million people. Dipesh had to work hard to get the police on his side and film molestations occurring before they paid any attention.

In 2011, the Times of India reported only 5 percent of sexual harassment cases in Mumbai’s state, Maharashtra, were successfully prosecuted.

The sexual abuse of women in India was thrown into the international spotlight in 2012 after the gang rape and murder of student Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi. An enormous national outcry sent the government hurrying to pass several laws cracking down on sexual abuse and rape. However, changes in the law do not equate to changes in culture, especially when the police do not enforce the law as harshly as they should.

Cover Image: mr.cooldude/Flickr