Nearly four out of five women in India have faced public harassment ranging from staring, insults and wolf-whistling to being followed, groped or even raped, said a survey by the charity ActionAid UK. The study - which polled over 500 women in cities across India - found that 84 percent of the respondents who experienced harassment were aged between 25 and 35 years old and were largely working women and students.
"For us in India the findings are not big news, what is noteworthy of the 500 women interviewed in India, is the extent to which women have responded and reported boldly about facing harassment and violence," Sandeep Chachra, ActionAid India's executive director, said on Monday.
"It is as if society is telling women that public spaces are not for them, and what is more interesting is that women are asserting their claim of these spaces." Indian women face a barrage of threats ranging from child marriage, dowry killings and human trafficking to rape and domestic violence, largely due to deep-rooted attitudes that view them as inferior to men.
There were 337,922 reports of violence against women such as rape, molestation, abduction and cruelty by husbands in 2014, up nine percent from the previous year, according to the latest data from India's National Crime Records Bureau. The online survey, which was released on Friday, was conducted by British market research firm YouGov in early May. It polled 502 women living in cities across the country, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata.
It said women faced harassment in multiple places - on the street, in parks, at community events, on college campuses and while travelling on public transport. Over a third of the Indian women surveyed said they had been groped in public or faced someone exposing themselves, while more than half reported that they had been followed.
Forty-six percent reported insults and name-calling in public, 44 percent experienced wolf-whistling, 16 percent had been drugged and nine percent reported they had been raped. A wave of public protests after the fatal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012 jolted many in the world's second most populous country out of apathy and forced the government to enact stiffer penalties on gender crimes.
This included the death sentence for repeat rape offenders, criminalising stalking and voyeurism, and making acid attacks and human trafficking specific offences. Since then, a spike in media reports, government campaigns and civil society programmes have increased public awareness of women's rights and emboldened victims to register abuses.
But activists say the figures are still gross underestimates, as many victims remain reluctant to report crimes such as sexual violence for fear their families and communities will shun them. ActionAid representatives urged authorities to work towards ending patriarchal mindsets and sexist attitudes which they said were to blame for this "culture of harassment."
"Safety of women is directly related to patriarchal mind sets that manifests itself in streets, homes and workplaces," said Sehjo Singh, ActionAid India's director of programmes and policy. "The fear of harassment and violence has a crippling effect on women's abilities and potential, and in itself it is an attack on women's rights."