Commutes, Schools, Neighbourhoods Unsafe For Girls
Chennai's girls & young women feel unsafe commutingPhoto credit: Annie Catherena

Commutes, Schools, Neighbourhoods Unsafe For Girls

Stalked, harassed and threatened, Chennai’s girls & young women struggle to cope

Panimalar* (name changed to protect identity) burst into tears at her employer’s home when reprimanded about not focusing on her work. She is a cook and deeply stressed by fear over her 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

Her daughter Vidya* is 14 years old and is being harassed by a man almost twice her age. “That fellow has gone around telling everyone in the neighbourhood that Vidya is in love with him,” said Panimalar.

“He has somehow taken a photo of her standing behind him. I asked Vidya about it and she said he lifted up his camera to take a photo of her and she slapped his hand away but he appeared to have managed to click it. Now he is using that photo to blackmail her, saying he will send it to everyone,” sobbed Panimalar.

While Vidya insisted that it was the man who was stalking and harassing her, that she had once even told him off outside the government girls high school she studies in, her family was not ready to believe her.

“My son says Vidya must have definitely done something, otherwise why would this fellow come after her?” said Panimalar.

When asked what she believed, Panimalar was hesitant. “My daughter is not that type. She is a good girl. She swears on her father that she has not done anything wrong. But everybody in the street is talking about this as if it is her fault,” she said.

This is not Vidya’s first battle with harassment and unwanted attention. For months, the young girl had been followed by a man older than her father. Vidya, desperate and afraid, would go through narrow streets and take various shortcuts to ensure her stalker did not find out where she lived. But he would always appear outside her school the next day.

One day, he attempted to talk to her and reached out to grab her hand. Frightened, Vidya jumped into a moving bus along with her friend and borrowed a mobile phone from a stranger in the bus. Vidya, being a schoolgirl, was not allowed to carry a mobile phone.

“Vidya called her brother and her father, crying. She told them the story. Both of them rushed and chased the fellow who was stalking her. They beat him up and handed him over to the police. That fellow has daughters himself!” recalled Panimalar.

Such stories are the norm in Chennai’s middle classes and the underprivileged sections of society. Women are left to fend for themselves, without support from family or the police and they live, study and work in a state of stress.

Conservative college administrations and parents do not make life easier either.

How Can They Make That SOS Call?

Since the horrific gangrape-murder of Disha in Hyderabad, the Chennai police has been galvanised into action.

The government of Tamil Nadu launched a 24-hour helpline for women facing domestic violence and sexual harassment in December by chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, developed at a cost of Rs 62.7 lakh.

The helpline 181 can be contacted to avail assistance of police, legal or medical aids other than reporting domestic violence, sexual assault, or sexual harassment at home or workplace.

Apart from this, an SOS app for women has been developed by the Chennai police. In the past few weeks, the city police have been conducting a series of campaigns in schools and colleges to create awareness about the Kavalan SOS App. The application has over five lakh downloads on Google Play store.

But the majority of colleges and schools in Chennai do not allow students to bring or use mobile phones in campuses.

A principal of an autonomous women’s college in Chennai commented, “Our college had an introduction of the app, but the students are not allowed to use mobile phones inside campus. Our college is a safe place and students have no issues even after they leave college. We ensure every student is disciplined and therefore remains safe. They can use the app after they go home,” the principal said.

Ironically, this same college was in the news a few years ago for a student who was attacked outside their premises.

A first year student from the same college who travels two hours every day from home, feels that she would feel a lot safer if she had a phone when she travelled alone. “It becomes very difficult to contact someone in an emergency. We have asked the college administration to allow us to bring our phones and we would submit our phones to the department or the class teachers during class hours, but they have not agreed yet,” she says.

Of what use is an SOS app when the mobile containing it is left at home? “It would only make sense if we are allowed to use the app when we need it the most, we would not need to use the app after we have reached home,” the student said.

P Mallika, Assistant Head Mistress of Government Higher secondary school, Ashok Nagar, says her school also had an induction session for the Kavalan SOS app this month. But she heads a government school with students until Standard 12.

“I agree most students would not have mobile phones, but they use the app elsewhere if they face any problem. The students mostly commute by state sponsored cycles, buses or a guardian comes to pick them up,” she says.

“Although, I do feel that if the government can increase the number of women-only buses especially in school and college routes, the girls can be assured a safe commute. Apart from that, the laws surrounding women’s violence should be made more stringent and justice should be delivered as soon as possible,” Mallika says.

“Policemen come everyday after school. When the girls go back home, they come in plain clothes and keep a watch for miscreants. Even we are not able to find out who the police officer is, waiting amongst the parents. They are doing a great job in that way,” added Mallika.

Despite Chennai police launching an SOS app, college students are not allowed to carry mobile phones
Despite Chennai police launching an SOS app, college students are not allowed to carry mobile phonesPhoto credit: Annie Catherena

But none of this appear to be good enough deterrents to stalkers and young Romeos who make their presence felt at bus stands, train stations and outside school and college premises.

Like Jyoti*, a Standard 12 student, who goes to a government girls’ school in Chennai. Her father is a daily wage worker and her mother is a home maker.

“I have been taking the bus since I was in 6th standard. And in six years, I have been groped, pinched, touched inappropriately almost every day. Irrespective of looks, age, and what they were, men take advantage of the crowd in the bus. We wouldn’t know who touched us, because it’s so crowded,” said Jyoti.

“Even if we knew and confronted them, they would say, it was a mistake. The crowd pushed. It was the sudden break the driver applied. But I know when a man touches, if it was by mistake or if he enjoys doing it,” Jyoti added.

In a survey conducted in 2017, on what people felt about travelling in Chennai, city-based NGO, AWARE came out with data on the ground reality of sexual assaults in public spaces.

According to the data provided by AWARE, 71% felt women are at risk of being groped or subjected to other forms of harassment on public transport.

According to the study of 1400 subjects who travelled by any mode of public transport, 52% felt other passengers would not assist a women being abused, either physically or verbally, on public transport. 66% felt it is not safe for women to travel alone on public transport after dark.

These statistics are borne out by experiences of young women like Ganga*, a first year commerce student, who attends a private college in Chennai. She commutes by a combination of public transport like the suburban train and bus. “I have travelled in the general coaches a few times, and I regretted it every time. Even if you find a place to sit, which rarely happens, the looks men give are more than enough to feel violated. Now I travel only in the ladies coach. Even then, I don’t feel completely safe,” says Ganga.

“When the train stops at the station, men whistle and call names and give flying kisses. There was this one time, when a man, older than my father, almost in his late 50s, used to give flying kisses from a passing train. And this would happen in a fully crowded public place during peak hours. This has become a ritual for him. I dread what would happen if I were travelling alone or late in the night,” said Ganga.

For people like Ganga who furthers commutes by a bus and then walks from the bus stop to her home, safety is never assured. “What is the most I could do? I cringe and control my anger. If I get provoked by these things, tomorrow he might do something much worse. If I complain to my parents, they would stop sending me to college. There is nothing that can be done, other than being tolerant towards these things,” Ganga says.

Socio-economic status also plays an important role in vulnerability of victims and reportage of crimes. Students who can afford to have a private vehicle to commute or a parent who could accompany them to school and back home. But those who cannot, and have no choice other than public transport, are very likely to be victims of issues that otherwise go unnoticed amidst societal denial.

24 year old Anitha* is a former student of Ethiraj College in Chennai. Two years ago, when she used to commute to college by bus, she was stalked by an unknown man for a few months.

“He used to take the same bus route and try to signal and share his phone number. He used to stare continuously till I got down at my stop. This went on for quite some time,” says Anitha.

“One day, he got too close while I was getting down and tried to a slip a note in my hand, and I pushed him off, swore at him and got down. When the bus started moving, he spat on my face. I kept it to myself, fearing I would be ridiculed or not taken seriously,” she added.

Anitha had to change her mode of transport and travelled by train, even though that was expensive and took longer, just to avoid further contact with the man who used to stalk her.

“That incident has scarred me. Even now when I drive my two-wheeler, I never stop near a bus at traffic signals,” says Anitha.

Harassment At School Itself

In another private school in Chennai, timely intervention by a vigilant administration saved what could have become a worse situation for a lot of children, families and for the school itself.

“The security personnel that we had previously, was a 55 year old man. He was known for being too friendly with the female students. Parents would sometimes even give him money and let their children under his guard,” the Principal of the school said.

“He had this habit of buying candies for kids and in one such incident, a student had asked him for her share of candy. He insisted that she come to his cabin and get the candy. She agreed to go with him, he tried to molest the girl, saying he would only give the candy in return for a kiss,” the Principal said.

The security guard was terminated the next day when the parent of the girl complained.

“The parents did not want a police case as it would distract the child from her studies. I made sure to inform the security company that employed him, and insisted he never be assigned duty at a school or any institution that would give him access to misuse any child’s innocence,” the Principal said.

“He is now employed at a multiplex. I asked the security company to assign him in such a place that would keep him busy and would have no time for such thoughts,” she said.

Dr Anju Soni, Counselling Psychologist at Chennai National Hospital, says most perpetrators of child sexual abuse have access to the victim’s domain. “Usually a family member, friend, neighbour or a domestic help or security guard have access to know the daily activities of the child. They know details such as when they go to school, when they go out to play or when they are left unattended. This makes it easy for them to befriend the child and gain the child’s trust,” Dr Soni says.

“This makes the child vulnerable to such acts as they have power to silence the kids unless a third party intervenes or confronts. This is also a major reason most cases don’t get reported,” she says.

Social strata often aggravates the problem of harassment
Social strata often aggravates the problem of harassmentPhoto credit: Annie Catherena

Harassment At The Neighbourhood

While Vidya* faced the social “ignominy” of being labelled as “being in love” with her unrequited stalker, younger children who are targeted by molesters often do not tell their tales of harassment until an adult finds out.

6 year old Narmadha* skips playfully around her school campus as she waits for her guardian to pick her up.

Her father has been admitted in the hospital for over three months. Her mother goes to work in the morning and then after work goes to visit her husband at the hospital.

Narmadha was living with her grandmother. They had recently shifted to this house.

She was sexually abused by her neighbour. A man who had two daughters himself.

It was Narmadha’s class teacher who found out what had happened to her. “She was an average student, she has some respiratory disease due to which she used to take a lot of sick leave and eventually it affected her studies. But other than that she was a happy-go-lucky kid,” the class teacher said.

“I had noticed that she had been pairing up cartoons and telling the other students that the cartoons were kissing each other. One day, a few of her classmates complained saying she kissed a picture of a famous cricketer in the crotch region. For a 6 year old kid, this was not normal,” the teacher said.

“When asked where she had learnt that from or if she had seen it somewhere, she denied that she indulged in such an act. As we have CCTV cameras in every classroom, I told her I had seen her do it through the CCTV footage. Although the output of the CCTV can only be accessed from the principal’s office, this was enough to get the truth out of her. She accepted that she had indeed kissed the picture inappropriately,” the class teacher continued.

“I then asked her who her friends back home were and who her favourite people are. She went on about father and mother and family members and then said, she talks to a neighbour uncle frequently.

I asked her what kind of conversation they have and if he had any physical contact with her. She started by saying he used to touch her shoulders and then abused her by kissing her, touching her breasts, inserting his finger in her vagina and by forcibly making her touch his privates,” Narmadha’s teacher took a breath as she finished talking.

This molester had two daughters aged nine and six. When Narmadha used to go their house to play with them, he lured her into the bedroom, while his wife had gone to church.

In Narmadha’s case, the teacher had noticed the child’s behaviour and confronted her. When asked about her inclinations to kiss a man’s picture inappropriately, the 6-year-old had said, “He had asked me to kiss the crotch region of any picture of a man I came across.”

The teacher said that he had asked her to meet her again when she came to play the next Sunday, when his wife would have gone to church.

“I anticipate that he would have planned to further abuse the child, to indulge in oral sex, he had given her ‘homework’ to practice it with pictures, so she would not realise it was wrong to indulge in it. The sad part is, this child was dedicatedly following her perpetrator’s instructions. This shows how innocent that child is,” said Narmadha’s class teacher.

According to NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) statistics, Tamil Nadu has recorded an increase of 24% in the number of cases of crimes against children. The rate of conviction, though, has gone down by 6%.

In 2016, 2856 cases were reported in Tamil Nadu and the number increased to 3529 in 2017.

The national numbers in 2017 were, a total of 1.29 lakh cases of crimes against children.

Child abuse on the rise in TN
Child abuse on the rise in TNGraphic design: Annie Catherena

Sakhi: Not So Women Friendly

Sakhi, introduced by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2017, was envisioned as a One Stop Centre (OSC), meant to provide support such as temporary shelter, psychological support, free legal aid, police assistance and counselling to women facing any gender based violence.

Chennai has only one functioning centre in Tambaram.

The building is located within the same campus of a government service home cum government higher secondary school. The centre does not have a board and is difficult to locate.

The centre has an in-house shelter for women, which accommodates victims until they find a safer place. Along with providing legal and medical aid, counsellors here also provide psychological help to deal with post traumatic stress.

Women’s rights activist Sujata Mody feels that the OSC is a very good initiative in theory. However she says it is run by inexperienced and untrained people and therefore ineffective.

“It would be better if the OSC coordinated with say an IAS officer. She should know the laws which are meant for women, have a progressive mindset and induce a positive framework,” she says.

“The OSC lacks the basic structure of co-ordinating with the police, the district collector or the judiciary. In its present form, the OSC is just functioning like any other government office, where women lodge complaints and are sent back and forth to the probation officer at the collectorate and to the OSC. They have not been able to ensure the internal complaints committees are working and filing the reports,” Sujata Mody claims.

“The government is putting the Nirbhaya fund to use and there is an effort. The Women’s Commission chairperson also visits the OSC but unless this organisation is handled sensitively, keeping political inclination aside and not getting trapped in bureaucracy, it hinders the path of justice,” she continues.

“The OSCs have not been able to get any justice to anyone other than making the victim understand the framework of the law,” she added.

There was no staff in Chennai’s Sakhi centre to comment on the criticism of the OSC.

Girls, Parents Find Their Own Solutions

Krishna Murthy, 53, waits for his granddaughter outside a government school in Chennai.

“Every day in the newspaper I see some news about girls getting raped and killed. It has become a scary world,” he says.

“My daughter and I take turns with work and make sure, either one of us walks my granddaughter home after school. Even if there is a police officer outside government schools in plain clothes, what guarantee do we have that nothing bad would happen to her. We never let her go out alone,” Krishna Murthy says.

And young adults like Jyoti*, who are assaulted in public transport in the presence of adults, feel helpless and neglected.

“What is the point of telling it to anyone? It is not going to stop, it is inevitable. Another day, another man, another story to tell,” Jyoti said as she left to get onto her bus.

(*Names changed to protect identity)

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