NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pepper spray, safety apps and covered clothing - a mental list Kanika Johri checks off before stepping out of her house in New Delhi, dubbed “India’s rape capital”.
These are also must-haves for her friends and family in India, where official data show nearly 40 crimes against women take place every hour.
For Johri, 28, who worked for seven years in the city as a marketing professional, fending off daily threats from men who ogle, cat-call, stalk, flash and grope is a “disturbing reality”.
“It was packed, this bus, and suddenly I felt something hard pressing up against my thigh and I froze and tears streamed down my cheeks, just uncontrollably,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation about one of her experiences from early 2017 as she traveled to work.
“First you deal with creeps on the streets, the buses, the metro ... Then at office, there’s another nightmare waiting - flirty messages, winking, lingering hugs. It was too much,” said Johri, who quit her job last year.
Her story is common in India, which was named on Tuesday as the world’s most dangerous country for women in a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of experts.
Women across India - from executives in gleaming corporate towers to those toiling behind closed doors of middle-class homes, in factories or farms - face the same dangers of sexual violence and harassment.
At least 20 million women - the combined population of New York, London and Paris - have left the workforce of Asia’s third-largest economy since 2005, World Bank data shows, partly due to their poor treatment. Only 27 percent now work.
Those in the private sector opt for company-paid taxis rather than public transport, with many women telling the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they skip office or networking events at night over safety concerns.
“We need safe transportation and zero tolerance of sexual harassment in the office,” Annette Dixon, World Bank South Asia vice president, said at a women’s forum in New Delhi in March.
“We must also raise our sons to respect girls and women, and make it clear that there is zero-tolerance for gender-based violence ... We need families to see their girls as capable future professionals.”
“FEAR OF BACKLASH”Crimes against women in India spiked more than 80 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to government data.
Nearly 40,000 rapes were reported in 2016 despite a greater focus on women’s safety after the fatal gang rape of a student in New Delhi in 2012 that sparked nationwide protests and led to tougher laws against sexual abuse.
Rekha Sharma, head of the National Commission for Women (NCW), said it was a case of more women reporting crimes rather than a greater incidence of sexual violence.
But local media carry daily reports of sex crimes - from girls molested in school, professional women raped by taxi drivers, to teens trafficked and sold to brothels.
An Air India flight attendant made headlines in May when she took to Twitter to accuse a “predator” senior officer of sexually harassing her over six years, describing him as “Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby put together”.
When she approached the airline’s internal complaints committee (ICC) - a legal requirement for Indian firms to investigate sexual harassment at the workplace - the chief brushed it off, saying “you know how he talks”.
“I have almost never seen ICC members go against the person who has been accused,” Sharma of the NCW told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They have a tendency to say ‘oh, the woman was at fault’.”
India recorded 539 cases of sexual harassment at the workplace in 2016, up 170 percent from 2006, a joint report by EY and Indian industry body FICCI from last year showed.
But campaigners say the figures are just the tip of the iceberg. A 2017 survey by India’s National Bar Association found nearly 70 percent of sexual harassment victims did not report their cases.
Nishtha Satyam, deputy chief of U.N. Women in India, attributed this to a “fear of backlash”.
“There is a culture of silence not because women are okay to put up with it, but because women do not draw enough confidence from the way the issue is going to be dealt with, because those in power continue to be men,” she said.
“HIDDEN, ISOLATED AND UNORGANIZED”
The situation is far worse for women working in the informal sector, activists say, where sexual violence and exploitation are rife in the absence of legal protection.
A trafficked teenage maid was strangled, chopped up and dumped in a drain in May in New Delhi, exposing the vulnerabilities of domestic workers.
“The challenge is access to justice as these workers are often hidden, isolated and unorganized,” Aya Matsuura, a gender specialist at the ILO, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Such cases lend weight to the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s poll of 548 experts on women’s issues that found India was the most dangerous country for women in terms of human trafficking including sex slavery and domestic servitude.
The survey was a repeat of a 2011 poll that found Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia were seen as the most dangerous countries for women.
This time Pakistan came sixth, an improvement experts credited to more women in public office, an active civil society and tougher action against sexual violence.