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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 12

Women’s World

Monday 10 March 2008, by Minakshi Sethy, Prabira Sethy



March 8 happens to be the International Women’s Day. To mark the occasion the following article is being published to focus attention on a societal problem involving women’s dignity and safety.

The recent disgraceful molestation incident of two non-resident Indian (NRI) young women by the rowdy mob on New Year’s Day outside the J.W. Marriot hotel at Juhu, Mumbai, has shocked the nation. The incident terrifies most of us because it shows the fragility of the protection that society confers on its more vulnerable sections. It is as if the traditional mechanisms that society invents to keep order were no longer effective. In fact, it was an illustration of a range of assaults on women that takes place everyday of the year and in every part of the country. Crimes against women don’t always make news. They hit the headlines only when they are particularly horrific, or when they affect women like us (that is urban, middle class women) or when they are captured on visual media. It is to be admitted that whether in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai or wherever, nothing can be more disquieting than women being harassed, assaulted or molested by lecherous men. The men who molested the two hapless women outside the Juhu hotel are out on bail and are probably bragging about their exploit to awe-struck friends. It is matter of grave concern and disgrace that men should behave in such a despicable manner and go after soft targets. It reveals the indifference and moral callousness of society to dignity and human rights of women, girls, minorities, adivasis and the poor and leads to introspection and a reality check From this incident it is apparent that if our laws were tough enough, men would think twice before pouncing on women. In this wondrous land of ours, society neither shames nor shuns those who violate the dignity of women.

The molestation of women in public places is perhaps one of the most serious unnoticed crimes in urban India. Women are groped in buses, felt-up in crowed spots like railway platforms, followed on lonely streets. Molestation is criminalised not just because it bodily violates the integrity of a woman, but also it is an affront to her dignity. The physical scars may heal over the time, but the scars on the psyche and the trauma caused by the assault may well alter the personality of the woman. It puts a question mark on what has long been established: that the right to life under Article 21 is not a right to mere vegetative existence, but to a life with dignity and a decent standard of living. Generally speaking, the incident at Juhu has brought to the fore the issue of safety of women in cities in general and in Mumbai in particular. According to the latest crime statistics, pertaining to 2006, released by the Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 36,500 molestation cases in India. The most worrisome fact the report reflects is that a woman is molested in India every 26 minutes, but the rate may be higher because many of cases are not reported. Even in 2007, 835 cases of molestation were registered in Delhi, up from 713 cases in 2006. Last year, the Mumbai Police registered 356 cases of molestation, that is almost one a day and the railway police have a record of 1068 cases, almost three a day. When it comes to conviction rates of crimes against women, Maharashtra’s record is worse than almost all other States. In case of molestation, only 11.5 per cent out of every 100 offenders chargesheeted and convicted in Maharashtra against the all-India average of 30.7 per cent. The only States with a lower conviction rate for molestation are Jammu& Kashmir with 11.2 per cent, Gujarat with 6.9 per cent and Karnataka with 6.2 per cent. There have been also at least a dozen cases of molestation of foreign tourists in the first couple of weeks of 2008.

Causes of Molestation

Rapid Urbanisation: As per the estimate, over 305 million Indians live in over 5000 towns and cities spread across the length and breadth of the country. They comprise 50 per cent of the country’s total population, in sharp contrast to only 60 million who lived in urban areas in 1947. In numerical terms, India’s urban population is second largest in the world after China, and is higher than the total urban population of all countries put together barring China, USA, and Russia. According to the 2006 NCRB figures, in India there is a population of more than a million in 35 cities. These cities are a melting pot of people coming from different parts and strata of the country. Here there is a mixed society which is largely dictated by a feudal mind-set. Besides, many people have acquired sudden wealth due to the rise in land prices in cities. In the absence of domestic and community life, neither binding social values nor stringent laws are there to be obeyed by the people. The deracinated people’s sense of right and wrong behaviour is not determined by social norms and they have no sense of belonging or relating to the new environment. The youths of this section of society, guided by old feudal ideas, lose their control and seek to pounce on any woman.

Loss of Values: The root cause for the increasing number of molestation cases across the country is an all-pervasive meltdown of conservative values and the degradation of morality among the individuals in society. These start in the family and educational system. In the families, boys are not taught to respect girls and women. Young boys are groomed to be macho men. Similarly, in our educational system there is no proper curriculum to teach children about values and morality which was prevalent from generation to generation in the past. In addition to this, today the hold of religion and tradition on sexual mores is slowly weakening in most parts of the country. It can be said that not installing proper values among the youths may be one of the reasons for the alarming increase in molestation cases in India.

Exposure of Children to Media: Another cause for the rising molestation crime against women can be attributed to the direct exposure of our children to the mass-media. The advertisements, violent movies, porn magazines, and the internet have made sex sensational and titillating. For example, when children watch lewd movies they start looking at women as objects of sexual pleasure. Then they begin to lose respect for women. Promoting a culture of momentary enjoyment unfortunately comes at the cost of other’s suffering.

Commodification of Women: It is a matter of fact that the market economy and commodification of women by slick advertising adds another dimension to the plight of women in our patriarchal society. Most advertisements, whether on television or in the print media, draw attention to the products they promote by featuring beautiful women. Their presence are purely ornamental and passive and serves only to attract the attention of men. The process which has been called commodification tends to portray women as commodities, inanimate objects that, unlike living beings, don’t have feelings and can be treated any way by the person owning them. What is more important is the triggering devise that activates the conscious and sub-conscious urges born out of patriarchal mindsets and advertisement-induced perceptions into acts of rape and molestation.

Non-adherence to Guidelines: The reason for the growing incidence of molestation, of particularly women tourists, is that they are not abiding by the guidelines. They ignore the rules and regulations of the visiting country. In many of the cases, the incident takes place when the person involved doesn’t have the knowledge of the system. Some of the foreign tourists also show tendencies to stay back even after the expiry of their visa. Women travellers, especially when travelling alone, often get unwanted attention and have been sexually harassed and assaulted.

Measures to Prevent Molestation

THESE incidents have triggered a host of ideas on the measures to prevent such occurrences and to ensure the safety and security of women. Some of these are as follows.

Strengthening Molestation Law: Worried over the sexual assaults on women tourists, which have the potential to damage the tourism industry as well as the country’s image, the Central Government should make plans to bring about changes in Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in order to make punishment for molestation more stringent, especially for habitual offenders. The present definition is sexual assault with the intent of outraging the modesty of women. Many legal experts say the problem with the definition is that proving the intent of the guilty in a court of law becomes extremely difficult. Because in many cases, the punishment is not more than a few months if the person is found guilty. Thus, our law needs to be given more teeth to come down heavily on people who commit such crimes against women.

Security at Tourist Spots: There have been growing incidents of sex-related crimes against women tourists including foreigners who are visiting different parts of the country. Against this backdrop the Centre should decide to review the safety and security situation and arrangements for tourists taken by the States at tourist destinations. Realising the gravity of the situation, the Centre should urge all States to put in place the ‘tourist police’ and post a trained, dedicated and discip-lined watchdog force comprising ex-servicemen as ‘tourist wardens’ or ‘tourist buddies’ at prominent tourist destinations in the country with special police powers for providing adequate protection to women visitors from harassment and molestation by unscrupulous elements that has assumed alarming proportions. Currently only ten States have such a mechanism in place.

Installing Values: The best way to root out such deviant behavour is to work on the minds of children when they are in their formative years. Right from when they are young, boys need to be told that girls have a mind and personality of their own and are as entitled to dignity and freedom of choice as they are. Children have to be educated about how touching of certain parts of their body is abuse. This kind of sensitisation to the boy child to the other sex is the best way to ensure a safe world for women. Thus, the process of gender sensitisation has to begin early.

Helpline in Police Stations: Expressing concern over increasing incidents of sexual assault on women, the States should speed up the setting up of helpline in police stations for counselling the victims to reach a compromise and provide them with immediate relief. Also, all States should establish a Crime Against Women (CAW) cell by their Police Departments on the lines of Delhi to deal with women related crimes like rape, dowry deaths, molestation and eves teasing. Further, more women cops should be inducted as molestation victims feel more secure in their presence and talk freely about their problems.

Adherence to Travel Advisories: Alarmed by frequent cases of sexual harassment of female foreign tourists in India, foreign missions should issue travel advisories for them from time to time. Women should be asked to instinctively and unquestionably avoid the badly lit streets even if it means taking a longer route to their destination. They should not dress up in provocative clothes in public. Women should be advised not to go out in the middle of crowds of men. They should be advised to observe and respect local dress and customs, taboos and the cultural norms of the visiting country. Women should avoid walking at night in deserted areas, including city streets, village lanes and beaches. Such advice could also be extended to Indian women travelling within the country. The States should try to educate the visitors on safe conducts while they are there.

Sensitisation Programme: The importance of looking at our cities through a gender lens is that the police need to be committed to make the cities safer for women. They should work to create safe space and environment for women and girl child in the cities through a change in mind-set by launching mass education and social awareness and sensitisation programmes for the police and amongst the general public to improve their response towards women. The people need to be sensitised about the need for a more respectful attitude towards women in public places as the happy experience of the tourist is intricately linked to the economic well-being of the state. This can be made possible and also effective by the cooperation of the community and society with their sharp vigil and strong support and by the exhibition of awareness movies in road shows. Such sensitisation must take place cutting across all classes. If the cities are safe for women, they will be safe for everyone.

Societal Objective of Law: The protection of society and deterring the criminal is the avowed object of law and these can be achieved by imposing appropriate sentence on the offender. The socio-economic status, religion, race, caste and creed of the accused or the victim should not be relevant considerations in passing the sentence. It is the duty of every court to award proper sentence having regard to the nature of the offence and the manner in which it is executed or committed. That is because public abhorrence of the crime must find reflection through imposition of appropriate sentence by the court. There is also a need to provide free legal service to victims who invariably cannot pay fees to the private lawyer.

Control Over Media: A civilised society needs to ensure that the beast in the man is kept in check and not enticed. The starting point could be to ensure that the electronic media / films are not allowed to show images of women which reduce them to mere sex objects. For this, the government needs to change and amend the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 to deal effectively with the growing menace new and more advanced technologies being used, especially in the new media, to depict women as sexual commodities. Besides, a far more effective way would be for women themselves not to associate with any activity which demeans not only them, but also their gender as a whole. In addition to this, women should be submissive and modest, dress and behave in a particular manner and avoid certain professions and places.

Make Law Stricter for the Culprit: The state should make legal provisions aiming at dealing with persons who wilfully target women and harass them at public places. According to the recommendations of the National Commission for Women (NCW) “whoever with a sexual purpose or with the intention to insult women, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object or a part of the body with a intention of intruding upon a woman’s privacy should be made punishable with the imprisonment and fine. Further, anyone by means of telecommunications device or by any other electronic form creates or solicits any comment, request, proposal, image or other communication which are obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent would be taken into jurisdiction.” Also, those who are witness to such incidents whether in public places, offices or elsewhere and don’t intervene to help the victim should be made a party to the offence and liable for prosecution.


THE harassment of women tourists, be it domestic or foreign, is a national problem. The protection of them in public places is an issue that has many ramifications, including the future of India. The fact is we in India simply don’t know how to treat our women as human beings who have a right to dignity and safety. We love and take pride in welcoming outsiders with the Sanskrit word “Atithi Deva Bhavah”, but the many cases of crimes against foreign nationals hardly inspire the tourist. This could eventually hurt the prospects of the tourist industry in India. It is very well for us to gloat over our economy’s growth rate and dream of achieving a superpower status of India. But economic progress minus a secure law and order environment is not going to take us far. An unsafe India will hurt us deeply in both the social and economic spheres. No project of modernisation can be possible when one half of the population is unsafe. Therefore, the issue warrants a more nuanced understanding of the aspects involved. It requires a collaborative rather than a confrontationist approach.

Sexual violence apart from being a dehumanising act is also an unlawful intrusion of the right to privacy and sanctity of a female. It is a serious blow to her supreme honour and offends her self-esteem and dignity. It degrades and humiliates the victim and leaves behind a traumatic experience. Therefore, the courts are expected to try and decide cases of sexual crime against women with utmost sensitivity, sternly and severely. The trend to impose inadequate sentence would do more harm to the justice system and undermine public confidence in the efficacy of law. Society cannot for long endure such serious mob-molestation as happened in Mumbai and Delhi on the eve of the New Year. Thus, the demand for more stringent laws, better policing, more effective courts, and greater vigilance becomes most essential in the circumstances.

Minakshi Sethy is a Lecturer, Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi. -Prabira Sethy is a Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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