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DANGER ZONE

The kids aren’t alright

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Women should reclaim their right to public spaces, say feminists.

Most public spaces are now considered unsafe for women and children. It's time to reclaim and repossess, say experts.

Public playgrounds are probably the last place you'd want to take your kids these days. Not if you want their pictures taken on camera phones by strangers, or if you want some slimy chap sidling up to you to reveal disturbingly attentive observations of your offspring. It perhaps explains why some folks today would rather fork out a fortune in entertainment tokens at the mall, than have to suffer frayed nerves at a park, where their periscopes may perpetually have to rove for potential molesters, junkies and kidnappers. It's not always 'Happy Hours' at the playground now.

And lately, it feels as though there's really no place in this country, save a pub, where you can have yourself some Happy Hours. The recent spate in crime has effectively flipped the switch on that glow sign. Molestations, rapes, robberies and murders have become our inevitable headlines. It begs the question: Are we safe in our cities?

Absolutely not, says Dr Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder of Prajwala, a Hyderabad-based anti-trafficking non-profit organisation. "Manifestations of sexual violence against women and children have taken dastardly proportions, " she says. "One could impute this to the larger sexualisation of society, but the victims are inevitably women and children. " Dr Krishnan contends that every public space is today an unsafe zone. Whether it's a bazaar, a place of worship, a bus stop or a train, women are liable to get assaulted. She reminds us of the girl who died, after being raped and pushed out of a passenger train in broad daylight in Kerala last year. "Similar cases have cropped up in other cities as well. Such crimes compromise the mobility of women, " she points out.

Figures from the National Crime Records Bureau indicate a 7. 1 per cent spike in crimes against women between 2010 and 2011. What's more, there's been a marked increase in rapes and molestations in public spaces. The Guwahati girl who was molested in July on a busy street when exiting a club;the Delhi Metro traveller who was blamed for the row that ensued between two men after one tried to get fresh with her;the rape of a law student in Bangalore on her own campus;the molestation of women constables in Mumbai during a riotous breakout in August. Little wonder that a poll of 370 international gender specialists slotted India as the worst country to be a woman among the G20 countries, worse even than Saudi Arabia.

However, it's not only women who suffer a sense of being threatened, other minority groups, like senior citizens, children, certain ethnic communities and socio-economic groups also complain about their vulnerability in public spaces.

And people have started to meet this new social reality with circumspection and vigilance. Senior citizen's clubs routinely take their members through safety drills - how to stay safe at home and on the street. "While most crimes against the elderly are committed in their own homes (particularly thefts leading to murder), thieves continue to dog them on the streets as well, " says Dr S P Kinjawadekar, founder and past president of the All India Senior Citizens Confederation. Women, for example, are advised not to wear much jewellery when going out, and men are told not to flash the cash.

Sadly, there are many signs that things have taken a turn for the worse. One of them is when you hear parents saying they feel safer in the private, controlled confines of a mall than at a public park, where flashers, lechers and molestors are known to lurk. "Parks have become anonymous places;you're unfamiliar with most of the people who come there, " says Meena Hari, a resident of Margao, Goa. Swati Popat Vats, president of the Early Childhood Association, admits that parks are not as safe as we'd like to imagine. "You never know when an adult with awful intentions can come around posing as a parent, " she says. There's no such thing as a safe haven, even temples and churches are routinely fallen upon by criminals, as evidenced by the spate of recent temple robberies in Hyderabad.

Public places like parks, bus stops, streets and squares are easily appropriated by anti-social sorts, who become bolder as each advance and crime goes unchallenged. The more ground they claim, the less room there is for others. A park that fills up with hoodlums is soon vacated of children;a street that houses molesters has sparse female traffic;a square known for its crime rate is roundly avoided. Circumvention, however, is not the road to revolution.

In their sociological treatise on the relationship between women and public spaces in Bombay, the authors of the book Why Loiter? contend that the way for women to reclaim their right to public spaces is by demanding the Right to Risk. The three researchers from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Shilpa Ranade, Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan, turn the conventional argument for safety (which is avoidance) on its head and hold that what women need is not greater surveillance or protectionism but the right to take risks. They write: "To do this, we need to redefine our understanding of violence in relation to public space to see not sexual assault but the denial of access as the worst possible outcome for women. . . and children and the economically disadvantaged and the elderly, and all groups driven to the tenuous security of their homes to escape the threat of the street. "

Dr Krishnan says more women have started to carry personal safety devices like safety pins and pepper spray cans, but these, she claims, will never rout the problem for good. "A pinprick is a temporary deterrent;the risk to women's safety (or that of any endangered group) will endure until the widespread voice of dissent is not explicit and loud, " she says, "Once the voice of the minority becomes bold and there's consensus on what is not acceptable, only then change will happen. " And we can repossess our cities.

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