Report Makes Clear Just How Unsafe India’s Girls Are Made to Feel
Most girls fear harassment in public spaces — and expect little support from parents, bystanders or police.
Hot on the heels of an expert poll that found India to be the world’s worst country for women, comes a report that lends that perception credence. “WINGS 2018: World of India’s Girls,” led by Save the Children, examines how adolescent girls view public spaces — and how they are viewed in them — and makes clear just how bereft India’s young women are of safety and support.
Most girls, aged 11 to 18, urban and rural, fear public transport. They also widely perceive their routes to school and/or the local market as unsafe. Many more urban girls in this age group worry about the safety of the narrow lanes around their home or school, while rural girls worried about wide open spaces — woods near their village, or places for open defecation.
The places where girls in India feel safe include their parents’ home — and really, that’s it. Fewer than 30% of girls in either urban or rural India view school or their friends’ homes as places of safety. Even fewer saw the local police as a refuge.
Outside of their family home, the behavior girls fear is remarkably similar across rural and urban areas. More than 60% of girls expect lewd comments. More than 40% of girls expect stalking and staring. And around 30% of girls worry they’ll be jostled unnecessarily or improperly touched. In rural areas, another 30% think abduction is a real possibility. And in both cities and the country, another quarter fear robbery. Physical and sexual assault are in the back of girls’ minds, also, though it is not a dominating fear, possibly because assault is less common than these other behaviors. (The report does not clarify how their definitions of improper touching and physical assault differ.)
The report also touched on an increasingly common form of public space hostile to young women: cyberspace. In major metros, regular social media use occurs among 38% of young women in this age group (which includes ages not legally allowed to participate on social media) — but only only 22% were aware of safe use practices. In large cities, social media use and awareness of online safety practices went roughly hand-in-hand. In small towns and rural areas, only half of the girls regularly using social media understood ways to stay safe online.
Training and awareness conversations about online safety have little impact. “Girls listen attentively and the next moment start taking selfies. They do not know about the harms that can be caused from pictures on Facebook and from profile information in the cyber world,” said an officer of Kolkata’s Cyber Cell.
But the report’s interviews suggest girls are all too aware of the harms. Girls interviewed in Telangana pointed to social media, Facebook specifically, as a place where they fear harassment, saying they “fear that photographs and other details posted in [their] accounts can be misused. They further said that easily available pornographic video clips are often viewed by boys who then get ideas for harassing girls. Adolescent boys corroborated these thoughts….”
The officer’s response, in fact, speaks to a larger problematic perception — that Indian girls are unsafe in public places by virtue of being present and female.
The report went on to study the perceptions that others — parents and adolescent boys — hold about adolescent girls and their movements.
“Nearly half of the boys interviewed were of the opinion that men must have the final word in all decisions. One in three boys held an opinion that slapping a woman to reprimand her should not be interpreted as violence. One in three adolescent boys felt that girls should avoid wearing certain types of clothes while going out in public spaces,” the report summarized.
It would be easy to be mad at these adolescent boys, if it weren’t so obvious their attitudes come from their parents. More than 30% of parents believed men should have the final word in decision-making.
Roughly a quarter of parents in both rural and urban areas agree with the statement that “Girls will all get married and have someone to look after them, so why do they need to work;” closer to 40% in both areas agreed with the statement “It is more important to allow the boys to get a good education since they have to grow up to support the family.”
These attitudes become justifications for both restricting girls’ movements — why send a daughter to school (a place that more than 30% of parents in cities and in rural areas consider unsafe), when she doesn’t need to be educated anyway? — as well as any harassment done them in those public spaces. In a great twist of irony, home, the place where girls feel safest, is not necessarily the place where they are likely to be believed or supported: More than 50% of parents said they would probably scold their daughters for “letting” an incident of harassment happen.
Across the board, girls, boys and parents ranked overcrowding — not isolation — as the most unsafe feature of public spaces for girls. Poor lighting came in second place. Evidently, as this report makes clear, even in the light, even among a crowd, India’s girls are on their own.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.