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Women On The Move: Fearless And Free



THE Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, recently announced that women could use state run public transport for free. He also said that women who wished to pay were welcome to pay and explained that this measure would make it safe for women to travel by public transport.

Rarely do political leaders in India discuss the issue of women’s mobility and sometimes I wonder if they have made the connection between women’s mobility and our Constitution’s promise of equality.

In Parichiti, we work with women domestic workers (WDWs) and the experiences of these women of their time in trains, auto rickshaws, buses or even walking somewhere, have made us realise that women’s mobility in India has not got its due in public policy.

Several thousand women come to Kolkata every day from the outlying peri-urban areas to work as domestic workers. They leave home very early in the morning and walk long distances to the railway station. These women reach the city as early as six-thirty or seven in the morning.

Women domestic workers work to support themselves and their families and travel is essential for them. In many cases, she is the regular income earner for her family. Saving on travel expenditure is one of the ways in which they try to make each rupee go far.

The state sees WDWs as ticketless travellers and they are subject to humiliating checks by railway police. Various state governments have tried to offer subsidised tickets for daily commuters but the process of getting that subsidy is confusing and long.

During a safety audit that we did several years ago, WDWs told us that in crowded ‘ladies’ compartments’ in suburban trains, they often faced hostility from middle-class women travellers on their way home from work. They were resentful if WDWs were quick to grab seats and they were left standing. There aren’t enough women’s only compartments and general compartments are perceived as ‘gents’ or men’s only spaces.

Street harassment by men is always present in India and women and transpersons of all classes and age groups face it – younger women are particularly vulnerable. In the case of transpersons, advancing years don’t appear to be a mitigating factor.

This intimidation ranges from comments and stares to different forms of molestation like groping and pinching and can end in beatings, rape, and murder. We may remember that in June 2013, a 20-year-old woman college student was gang-raped and murdered in Kamduni in North 24 Parganas district, about 50km from Kolkata.

Training women and girls in self-defense techniques or martial arts is often proposed as a means to end street harassment. Surely this would help any person, irrespective of gender, gain physical strength and confidence enabling them to stand up to attackers.

However, the onus of protecting themselves against mental, physical and sexual assault cannot be pushed on to women and people facing different forms of marginalisation.

The state has to ensure that women and girls can go from one place to another comfortably and without fear. Safe streets and affordable, accessible forms of public transport would certainly promote women’s mobility.

While on this topic, I must also draw attention to the fact that there are very few measures in India that enable persons with disabilities to navigate their world with ease. The norm in India is to hide such persons from public view. WDWs with a disability say that they find employment after much difficulty, are often paid less than their able-bodied counterparts, and that streets, vehicles and buildings are not set up to meet their needs.

My friend Soumita, an independent development professional, writer, and editor in her 30s has psoriatic arthritis that has resulted in severe disability. She has limited mobility and often uses a wheelchair. ATMs in Kolkata are not wheelchair accessible and neither are cafes. She’s a member of a swimming club that was established in 1922 in Calcutta, as it was called then. The club management has not been receptive to her request of providing a ramp to facilitate people, like her, with disabilities to use the pool.

And, let’s not forget the toilets. Women and girls would find life much easier if there were toilets everywhere they go – schools, colleges, offices, parks, markets, bus stops, train stations, eating places, cinemas – we can keep adding to the list. But simply providing toilets is not enough. They must be clean, accessible and usable.

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