New Delhi, (WFS) - The incidents of rape in Delhi in the last few weeks have sparked off the debate on law reform once again. While serious law reform is needed - and it is also true that the techniques of policing leave much to be desired - we also need to focus on the fact that insufficient attention is paid to the prevention of rape by planners, administrators and law enforcement agencies.
Why is it that they do not address the prevention of rape as a serious issue while preparing and executing the blueprints of Delhi's constantly changing landscape? Instead of moving into more effective mechanisms of legal enforcement and gender-sensitive planning, each reported incident of rape is reduced to a cautionary tale for women. The message is loud and clear: the city is unsafe for women and women need to take precautions.
Each time a slum is demolished and large numbers of people relocated, the issue of the safety of women and girls is neither seriously debated nor considered. When a mall, subway or a multiplex cinema is built, the idea that the urban environment should facilitate rather than impede the safety of women is not given any attention. Even when the Delhi Metro blueprint was being prepared, it did not take into account the increased vulnerabilities for women caused during its execution or by the change in bus routes.
Why is it that the prevention of rape and sexual violence is only about telling women to learn the skills of self-defence, use cell phones, avoid going out in the dark or calling for increased police presence? While the planning of the city by itself will not stop all such incidents of violence, surely planners who take deterrence seriously could contribute significantly in creating women-friendly urban environments? Why have urban planners not built in the prevention of rape into both the development and regulation of the city?
This has not been an issue for city planners (or law enforcement agencies) because women are routinely blamed for provoking rape by way of dress, manner or their character. By treating rape as an isolated instance, it becomes possible to pin blame on aberrant male sexuality and ignore rape as a systemic and political form of violence against all women. It allows planners to ignore the fact that public spaces are gendered, and the city is divided into sexualised zones that are seen as permissible spaces.
In other words, where there are no effective techniques of surveillance in place or where the urban landscape hinders the means to resist violent attacks, the conditions for rape to occur with impunity are created. Such conditions legitimise the implicit perception (albeit distorted) that women must be raped in public spaces to project the city as masculine and available to all kinds of crude and violent male fantasies.
The physical and material attention to the planning of urban spaces is not friendly to women in very basic ways. The Delhi University campus, for instance, is one such sexualised zone, which is marked by state license to rape or harass women. There is total or near total absence of traffic regulation or surveillance by the police, and inaction when a complaint is lodged. If there are no lights, if there are pot holes, broken pavements, and billboards in the middle of pavements, it makes resistance to sexual harassment on the street all the more difficult.
What adds to the viciousness of the city is that the urban environment lends itself to creating a rapacious city.
Travelling through the city of Delhi on foot, by public transport or personal vehicles has always been fraught with sexual danger. Today, cars symbolise the material culture of rape, telling us that the perpetrator is usually middle or upper class; or that he has enough capital to escape the law, proving false the idea that the working class man is the average criminal. For women, the moving terrain of rape is a terrifying image that makes the capacity to survive each day in the city even more difficult to negotiate. Political strategies fail to see how women's experiences of the city are re-structured through such practices of violence.
Each time rape has hit the headlines, politicians have made a hue and cry about how the media produces rapacious behaviour in men. It seems that apart from censorship there is no other way of thinking of the material culture of rape. Is it not important to examine the kind of consumer goods cars, for instance - that become new weapons for middle and upper class men to use against women of all classes? And the fact that women who use cars to access the city without the so-called protection of men continue to be at risk?
The market does not sell the prevention of rape even to those women who could afford to purchase objects that aid self-defence - such as sprays that can momentarily blind. The harassment and fear of violence that women face while driving alone in the city has not entered the services provided by cell phone companies. The sale of cars does not target women as consumers with the view to prevent abduction and rape. Even the new consumer - the woman who drives - is not addressed by the industry.
We may well ask why it is that cars do not sell alarms or sirens that can set off in the instance of a rape attack on lines similar to that of anti-theft devices? Why is it that car manufacturing companies do not care to counter the image of cars as part of the emerging phenomenon of car jacking and rape? It is apparent that the prevention of rape is not sexy enough while every other advert of a car is sexualised to increase its salability.
Even in the growing market for research, the prevention of rape is not an issue. One looks in vain for in-depth research studies on the nature of sexual violence and the city. The few studies that do exist have not been taken seriously. In 1996 for instance, a survey-based report by the Gender Study Group (which was functional in Delhi University between 1991 and 1998) had demonstrated that middle and upper class men in cars marked out the campus as a sexualised zone, where sexual harassment and assault were seen as permissible.
It is high time to abandon political rhetoric - such as Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani's call for death penalty - in favour of serious law reform. The proposal to hang rapists will only lead to greater acquittals because the burden of proof will be even more stringent. Official statistics tell us that almost 77 per cent of the accused in rape cases in Delhi over the last year have been acquitted.
In addition, the government, urban planners, and theorists of the city should think of how to build women-friendly urban environments as a small but critical step towards addressing the prevention of sexual violence against women in public spaces. We need to encourage women to use public spaces without fear rather than laying down restrictions on their movements on the grounds that Delhi is not safe.