A young woman was attacked by a knife-wielding stalker in broad daylight and killed in full public view in the Capital recently. Those watching this said they could not help as the assailant brandished his knife at them till one brave person tackled him. It was too late for the victim. This is not the first time that a stalker has attacked his victim in public, though such cases in Delhi get far more coverage than elsewhere.
Once again, the law is on the side of the victim, but this is a crime which many do not take seriously until it is too late. Unwanted attention from a stalker is often seen as trivial, as unrequited love, which is romantic rather than dangerous. The same blasé attitude applies to harassment of women in public places, whether verbal or physical. Now and again, we see publicised drives to teach women self-defence skills but honestly, how far does that get you when faced with an armed attacker or more than one assailant?
This lack of safety in public spaces is one reason why women are not joining the workforce in greater numbers; why girls drop out of schools; why women cannot enjoy the recreational spaces in urban areas; and why they find taking public transport difficult.
The answer that I have heard often is that we need more mahila police, but that is to fall back on a stereotypical option. Since the harassers are overwhelmingly male, the first effort should be to address men, whether at workplaces or in law enforcement. This is something that should be part of induction courses at workplaces and part of community programmes.
We have all too often blamed Bollywood movies for portraying stalking as a means to get a woman to say yes when she means no. The stalker in hero’s clothing invariably triumphs by popping up in the woman’s life, often in public spaces to the merriment of bystanders, while he coerces the victim into submission. But we need to go beyond this. There are simple solutions which can be undertaken in cities. One is for the police to take the victim seriously and not just give the offender a slap on the wrist and allow him to go back to his creepy ways. Better street lighting and more scrutiny of CCTV cameras are fairly simple ways of keeping a check on public harassment.
Since most working women have to take public transport, there should be more stringent checks on men harassing women in them. Section 344 of the Indian Penal Code has been amended to include cyberstalking, and is indeed a model piece of legislation, though critics feel it should be gender neutral. It provides for three to five years in jail if found guilty of stalking. But the ministry of home affairs records that of 7,200 cases in 2016, only 480 convictions were obtained. In other words, the majority of the accused were out on the streets again, free to harass at will. Given the lax policing system, the victim’s identity often becomes known to the accused, especially when they happen to be known to each other, as has been the case in many instances.
Once a case falls through, the victim is literally left to the mercy of the person she has accused. The mental trauma can be so severe that she is unable to function normally, often not being able to eat, sleep or communicate.
While crimes against women are discussed, stalking is rarely high on the priority list. This cavalier attitude has cost many women their lives. Unfortunately, official statistics show that over the years, there has been an increase in stalking cases and no increase in conviction rates. Making public spaces safe cannot be seen only from the prism of the economy – ie enabling more women to participate in the workforce or go to school or college. It must also been seen as a right to go out and enjoy public spaces without having to put up with harassment, the worst form of which is sexual assault or stalking.