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Safe among the crowd? Women commuters in Chennai say ‘no’

Last June, when IT employee S Swathi was hacked to death at the Nungambak Kam railway station in India, Chennai’s image as a safe city for women took a beating, reported Times of India. Five months before the murder, the city was rated the safest in the country by a global consultancy firm. But one...

SAMAA | - Posted: Jun 14, 2017 | Last Updated: 4 years ago
SAMAA |
Posted: Jun 14, 2017 | Last Updated: 4 years ago

CHENNAI_SMART_CITY_2765926g

Last June, when IT employee S Swathi was hacked to death at the Nungambak Kam railway station in India, Chennai’s image as a safe city for women took a beating, reported Times of India.

Five months before the murder, the city was rated the safest in the country by a global consultancy firm. But one year after the incident, that belief is eroding.

In a survey covering 1,800 respondents, 70% said women faced the risk of being groped or harassed when taking public transport. The survey, conducted by AWARE (Awareness for Wo+Men to Advocate their Rights and Equality) among Chennaiites, included men, women and people from the transgender community. The organisation and the state transport department are now working together and will conduct, starting this weekend, gender sensitisation workshops for MTC bus drivers and conductors.

“About 90% of women walk or use public transport while that number for men is between 65% and 70%,” said South Asia director for Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), Shreya Gadepalli.

“(But) there are no safety mechanisms for such women. The state is responsible for providing it,” said senior advocate of the Madras High Court, R Vaigai. “The Nirbhaya fund hasn’t translated into action, the Justice Verma committee report has been dumped. Amending laws is not enough. The society and system need to transform together.”

A safer transport system would ensure greater participation of women in the workforce, say experts. “About 15% men cycle while it is less than 2% among women because women on cycles are still seen as taboo,” said Gadepalli. “The Tamil Nadu government giving away free cycles for school students is a big step as it enhances their ability to move,” she said, adding that a research conducted in New Delhi showed that household maids who cycled made more money than those who did not. “If more women have access to mobility, more opportunities will be available to them,” she said.

To increase safety for women, experts say the government has to invest more in public transport, maximise its fleets and prevent crowding. For instance, the 3,500-odd buses operating in the city run on twice their capacity. In the survey, 80% respondents said they were more at risk of being sexually harassed inside a crowded transport vehicle. “Most people and staff are unaware of how to handle complaints and women still fear to call for attention,” said founder of AWARE, Sandhiyan Thilagavathy.

An official of the safety department of the MTC said checks were limited to investigating road accidents. “Our drivers and conductors are morally responsible towards women. If anything happens to them inside the bus, they have to help the woman file complaints,” the official said.

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