India’s women commuters face daily sexual harassment

Published: January 21, 2013
A bus stop in New Delhi. PHOTO: AFP

A bus stop in New Delhi. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI: On a wintry evening in Delhi, beautician Geeta Misarvan leaves work, steeling herself for a long wait until a bus arrives, and with it the dreaded prospect of being groped by strangers during the ride home.

“Once a guy sees you travelling alone, he will come and stand right behind you. Then, he will lean in and press his body against yours and try to touch you,” Misarvan said, describing an ordeal endured daily by many women in urban India.

In Delhi’s crowded coaches, where men easily outnumber women, the sense of hostility and fear is particularly palpable in the wake of the widely-discussed gang-rape and murder of a young student on a moving bus in the city last month.

“It’s terrifying,” Misarvan told AFP. “Sometimes I just lose it and ask the guy to stand properly but then he just yells at you, telling you to shut up.

“It’s upsetting, but what more can I do? If the guy gets even more aggressive or violent, no one on that bus is going to help me… so I just put up with it and wait for my bus stop,” she said.

Once 34-year-old Misarvan steps off the bus, she hunts for an auto-rickshaw, three-wheeled vehicles which are cheaper than taxis, since it’s too dark and unsafe to make the 35-minute walk alone to her house.

On most evenings it takes her 90 minutes to arrive home from work.

India’s expanding economy has seen unprecedented numbers of women join the workforce, but their emergence has been accompanied by growing threats to their security.

Like many working women, Poonam, a 21-year-old barista at an upmarket coffee shop in the capital, often stays late serving customers and says her parents fret nonstop about her comings and goings, calling her every night.

“I try to get an auto-rickshaw (home) because it’s safer but the drivers haggle for double pay and I can’t always afford it. So I end up waiting late at night for the bus, which never arrives on time,” she told AFP.

Once on board, Poonam, who declined to give her surname, says that sexual harassment is a constant risk.

“There’s nothing you can do about it, if you tell your family, chances are they will just tell you to stay home,” she said.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that economic progress is impossible without the “active participation” of women, but there are signs that the Delhi gang-rape case has led some to turn their backs on the workplace.

A survey by industry group ASSOCHAM published this month showed a 40 per cent fall in the productivity of female employees at call centres and IT firms in the country because many had reduced their hours or had quit their jobs.

Insensitive comments from politicians implying women are to blame for sexual assaults and clumsy “safety tips” from police have only fuelled anger among commuters.

A Delhi Police advisory posted on its official website suggests that women should “turn off” prospective attackers by vomiting or “acting crazy”.

Just days after the December 16 gang-rape, KP Raghuvanshi, a senior police officer in Mumbai told female college students to carry a packet of chilli powder with them always and use it when threatened, the Press Trust of India reported.

While trains in Mumbai and Delhi run segregated women-only coaches in response to the high incidence of sexual harassment, many have now called for more vigilance by authorities and frequent police checks.

Police and prosecutors have outlined how the student and her male companion struggled to find transport to go home and so agreed to climb aboard the bus driven by the rapists.

The group allegedly beat up the man and repeatedly raped and assaulted the victim with a rusting metal bar in the back of the bus while driving around Delhi for some 45 minutes. Five adults were due to go on trial on Monday on charges of rape and murder in connection with the attack.

Since the attack, beautician Misarvan, who often boarded similar privately-run buses to visit her widowed mother in west Delhi, says she is too afraid to keep doing so and now spends more to take an auto-rickshaw instead.

Like her other female colleagues, she tries to leave work as early as possible and expresses no faith in the Indian police’s ability to protect her.

“Nowhere in this country is safe,” says the mother of two, the first woman in her family to have a job.

“I worry a lot about my daughter growing up here, whether she will have to endure the same problems, the same risks that I deal with every time I leave my house,” she added.

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Reader Comments (30)

  • Truth detector
    Jan 21, 2013 - 5:13PM

    Finding a solution to basic social issues & problems is more important than piling up latest weapon systems & sending mission to Mars/moon. Same is true for Pakistan & for that matter any country in the region.


  • Jan 21, 2013 - 5:26PM

    This is why great nations like Saudi Arabia bans women from going out without a male companion.


  • Abrar R
    Jan 21, 2013 - 5:31PM

    Why cant they have a separate compartment for women in the bus? This is insane.


  • Vivek
    Jan 21, 2013 - 5:46PM

    Shame on us, being indian


  • BJP
    Jan 21, 2013 - 5:51PM

    Imagine if this happened in Pakistan, how much comments and like this news get, and how much media give focus it


  • UMSyed
    Jan 21, 2013 - 6:13PM

    I might be a fan of Indian economic growth over the last few decades, but the situation in urban centers of Pakistan like Karachi, Lahore & Islamabad is much much better when it comes to the aspect reported in this news piece.


  • Pessimist
    Jan 21, 2013 - 6:31PM

    I don’t understand the point of this article.

    Yes, it is unfortunate that these women in India face such troubles, but it’s not as though women on our public buses are treated as queens. I could go on describing how abject our public transport system is with when it comes to women.

    Perhaps this article is another cheap attempt to start a Pakistan-India debate. Let’s focus on ourselves before we start finding flaws in our neighbours.


  • THE
    Jan 21, 2013 - 6:36PM

    If you just remove “India” from the above article and put “Pakistan”, you will see how many hate comments you get from Indian trolls on these pages. Any story that’s negative about Pakistan warrants the Indians labeling us as a failed state while they should be looking into their own evils.


  • Zaheer
    Jan 21, 2013 - 6:45PM

    Indian women should continue to fight for rights to work in safe environment. The male-dominated societies of India and Pakistan will not give you your rights in plate. You need to snatch them!


  • Yoghurt lover
    Jan 21, 2013 - 6:49PM


    This is an AFP report.

    This same report will appear in several news papers across the world.

    Didn’t you see how an Auto-Rickshaw is described here? This article is meant for international media. This is not an ET exclusive report.


  • Ammar
    Jan 21, 2013 - 6:59PM

    @ Vivek

    Though often, Pakis and Indis keep fighting on ET, fact is that many weaknesses are common due to war-phobia of our Govts. If you are high at rapes and poverty, we are better in extremism and intolerance. “SANE” people of both sides need to divert their focus and energies on peace and competition rather than hatred and war. US or EU would never come to help make this region prosper but its in interest of us all.


  • Dr.Shafique
    Jan 21, 2013 - 7:47PM

    India has a myriad of problems, including sexual harrassment of women. It is condemnable and, to say the least, horrendous. But what has stunned the entire world is the outburst of public anger and outrage over the gangrape of the 23 year old medical student in a Delhi bus. Indian protesters, half of whom were men calling for greater protection of women, showed the world that India will not allow perpetrators of such ghastly sexual assault to go scot free. Women’s organizations in India — not just in Delhi — are working together to find ways and means to stop this ugly phenomenon. That’s a sign of a vibrant democracy at work. India’s politicians and police have become the butt of criticism and scorn. But, dear readers in Pakistan, have you also asked what steps are taken in your own country by Pakistani lawmakers, the almight police force (which is always beyond reproach) and the public to stop this widespread – but hushed-up — phenomenon in Pakistan? We all know that rapes of Pakistani women are not discussed by the victims even with their family members, let alone reported to the police which is hugely corrupt and will side, usually, with the perpetrators rather than the victims since they are more likely to be paid bribe money by the former to close the case. By the way, you ought to also do something about other social evils in Pakistan such as acid throwing and destroying women’s faces, honour killings, female genital mutilation, etc. etc. It’s a long list but check your hearts and souls, you will know what I mean here.


  • Pessimist
    Jan 21, 2013 - 8:03PM

    For Youghurt Man:

    Regardless of where it’s from, I still don’t see the point in publishing it.


  • Jan 21, 2013 - 10:23PM

    Wate is indiaRecommend

  • Salman
    Jan 21, 2013 - 10:33PM

    For Indian companies than employ a large female workforce, I suggest they provide a dedicated shuttle service for females only, even if it means a small cost to the employees.

    I also recommend to Indians whose sisters have to go out and work, to buy them some Bhut Jolokia (ghost chillies), dry them out, crush them and mix with a small quantity of water, then place in a small spray bottle. Spray them into the eyes of a harasser.

    Ghost chillies can bring a large man crying for mercy when sprayed into his eyes. The effects lasts upto half an hour.


  • Sudheer
    Jan 21, 2013 - 11:28PM

    Doc, I agree with every word that you wrote, it’s as if, you stole those words from my mouth. India is maturing as a vibrant democracy. No matter how deeply I felt angry and ashamed at what happened to the Delhi girl, I also felt proud at the reaction of the civil society, media and more importantly, the younger generation’s ferocious response at the despicable atrocity. As an Indian, I feel more proud about this new found assertiveness, compassion and responsibility shown by the youngsters of India towards their country and countrymen, than the economic success, achieved during the recent decades.
    I think the cultural awareness and the spread of education is the only answer to this problem of looking at women as just sex objects. Although, sex related offenses are never going cease, but, by making society more n’ more enlightened, we can certainly restrict the menace to bare minimum level.


    Jan 21, 2013 - 11:47PM

    @Salman: Nice idea Salman, honestly; but did you know that Bhut Jolokia trades at a friggin Rs.5000/kg in the National Capital Region. I know people here will say small price to pay for safety, but trust me the people taking buses in the NCR earn an average wage of Rs.7000 a months, pre-tax. And no, theres no escaping the tax man in India.


  • Parvez
    Jan 22, 2013 - 12:59AM

    @Zaid Hamid: You certainly have a wicked sense of humour.
    Now if the 26 who recommended your comment took it at face value, it be be even funnier.


  • BILL
    Jan 22, 2013 - 1:10AM

    @Zaid Hamid:
    Why? Because you can’t control yourself?


  • Pessimist
    Jan 22, 2013 - 3:13AM

    @Zaid Hamid: You certainly have a wicked sense of humour.
    Now if the 26 who recommended your comment took it at face value, it be be even funnier.

    I liked it for the sarcastic value, but I can imagine one or two people liking it for the genuine message!


  • gp65 .
    Jan 22, 2013 - 4:33AM

    @THE: “If you just remove “India” from the above article and put “Pakistan”, you will see how many hate comments you get from Indian trolls on these pages. “

    You have a hypothesis which can easily be disproved here


  • popsaeed
    Jan 22, 2013 - 9:34AM

    Effects of bollywood movies


  • ff
    Jan 22, 2013 - 9:42AM

    India is big democracy and many persons are loyal with their country and they have good brain so why don’t they use computer technology to decrease this type incidents Or they should secure women by create community welfare bus service only for working woman and students. And they can also hire security guard in these buses.


  • ff
    Jan 22, 2013 - 9:52AM

    woman in India or any other country are respectable for every one and it is not the time of blame gaming.


  • Nobody
    Jan 23, 2013 - 1:33PM

    @Zaid Hamid:
    I hate to resort to such childish speech but this warrants nothing else. Shutup. Please.


  • Nobody
    Jan 23, 2013 - 1:38PM

    All that you said is very true, but how about Indians applying the same advice to their own papers? I’ve seen countless stories about Pakistan making headlines there. Rather than India focusing on Pakistan and Pakistan focusing on India, both nations desperately need to clean up the dirt in their own backyards.Certainly have our work cut out. Cheers.


  • Nobody
    Jan 23, 2013 - 1:40PM

    I’d like to think he was being sarcastic but I’ve seen this person’s comments before. Can’t always be sure….Considering Pakistanis admiring Saudi’s ways (few and far between) is not totally unheard of.


  • Nobody
    Jan 23, 2013 - 1:42PM

    Seems neither nation is capable of discussing the other’s issues without a handful of trolls or know it alls jumping onto the bandwagon…. this is not new unfortunately. Not for women in Pakistan or India or Bangladesh or anywhere on the subcontinent for that matter. Million dollar question is what does one do to change it….


  • PTI Supporter
    Jan 23, 2013 - 3:44PM

    That is why Islam preach for women to wear Hijaab


  • meh
    Jan 26, 2013 - 12:22PM

    @ Pessimist: Your comment summed up all that needed to be said.


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