Safer Cities: India's Women and Girls Can't Wait

06/19/2014 04:18 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2014

On any given day, I am constantly moving in and out of public spaces. During my morning commute, I park in the public garage, duck into a convenience store and then pick up a coffee before heading into the office. For women living in cities like Washington, D.C., our daily routine requires navigating public spaces -- and, generally, that's just fine. Sure, we might avoid streets, buses and malls when we expect they may be crowded, but we generally don't avoid them out of fear for our safety. For women like Nitya*, a young woman who lives in Delhi, public spaces are too commonly associated with sexual harassment, abuse and, in the most extreme case, assault.

Nitya, a college student at the time of her interview with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in 2012, told us that she regularly faces unwanted sexual advances on her way to and from school. At a busy bus stop near her campus, a man flashes girls while they're waiting for the bus. Once, when she was with a friend, Nitya shouted at the man to stop. His response? He just grinned. "It was almost as if [he felt] he was doing a favor by listening to us," she said.

Nitya's experience is not unique. Her story is but one that illustrates the reality confronting women and girls who call Delhi home.

In 2012, ICRW conducted a survey to document the nature of sexual violence in Delhi's public spaces. We interviewed nearly 3,000 men and women, and found that 90 percent of women reported that in their lifetime they had experienced at least one form of sexual violence -- which encompasses everything from verbal and sexual harassment, exhibitionism, unwanted touching or groping to rape -- with 6 in 10 saying they had experienced some form of sexual violence in the six months leading up to the survey.

Of the men surveyed, a little more than half said they had perpetrated at least one form of sexual violence against women and girls while in public. And even more worrying, are men's responses to questions as to why they perpetrate sexual violence. According to our survey, three out of four men feel that "women provoke men by the way they dress."

Evidence generated by our 2012 survey, and anecdotal reports from girls themselves, demonstrate that Delhi is truly not a safe place for women and girls.

Survey results explained that while women and girls felt unsafe at any period of the day, going out in public after dark presented significant challenges, with 63 percent saying they were afraid to go out alone after dark. One in five women said they never go out alone at night. Some Delhi women like Devi* said they avoid going out at night all together, and plan their days around being home before nightfall.

Facing this constant fear of sexual violence forces women like Anjali* to be ever vigilant when entering public spaces. When she takes the bus, she avoids sitting next to the driver because he's known to "accidentally" grope women. If the bus is too crowded and she has no other choice but to sit next to the driver, she grips her handbag close to protect herself from unwanted advances.

What our data describe, ultimately, is a normalization of sexual violence in Delhi, where women expect they could be sexually harassed or abused at any moment, with men believing that women and girls who experience violence bring it upon themselves.

Following the gang rape and death of Nirbhaya, which happened just weeks after we completed our survey in 2012, government officials promised change. Facing international pressure, they pledged that they would take concrete steps so that women and girls could feel safe in public spaces. Subsequent legislative and judicial action indicated that the tides were turning.

Two years later. We're still hearing stories from women like Deepa* who was recently beaten by a group of boys, yet mustered the courage to report it to the police. She later learned that the police had requested a bribe from her alleged attackers and, once paid, left them alone. Impunity defined.

Women like Nitya, Devi, Anjali and Deepa deserve better. They deserve safe public spaces where they can attend school, ride the bus or report incidents to the police without fear they will be stigmatized or ignored.

In September and October, we'll head back into the same neighborhoods of Delhi where we surveyed in 2012 to update our data on sexual violence. These new data will be critical in measuring progress and determining if Delhi is truly any safer for women and girls given the policy initiatives undertaken by the Indian government, media attention and at the urging of civil society.

*Names changed to protect the identities of the girls surveyed.

India's women and girls cannot wait. Every week, another horrific headline hits our inboxes, twitter feeds, and the front pages of national newspapers. We must act now. We need to raise $75,000 to conduct the follow up survey in Delhi. Every dollar that we raise in the month of June will go toward building the evidence to ensure that laws and services are making streets, bus stops, schools and market places safer for women and girls. Take a stand against sexual violence. Join ICRW's Safe Cities campaign today.