Creating safe spaces for women in Mumbai, one station at a time

By Amnesty International India
9 October 2018 10:45 am

Since 2016, Amnesty International India has interacted with over 75,000 commuters across ten Mumbai railways stations to promote women’s safety and rights.

– By Dipti Ramesh

It was a warm, sticky day in Mumbai in early May. I was sitting in the office of the General Manager of the Mumbai Division, Western Railways, and I was nervous. It was 2016 and this was the first time I was meeting such a senior official.

We were reaching out to the Mumbai Division of Western Railways because we had recently set up a team of frontline campaigners in the city and were looking for a venue where the team would be able to engage ‘Mumbaikars’, in large numbers, on women’s rights and how to report instances of sexual harassment and violence. It was a young and ambitious team, energetic and raring to go, but we anticipated that the famed Mumbai rains would soon put a damper on their spirits if we didn’t find a suitable place for them to work.

This was an important meeting. I was lucky. There was nothing to have been nervous about. Mr G.C. Agarwal, the General Manager at the time, was a kind and personable man. He understood the issue we were dealing with and almost immediately offered his support to the cause. This was the beginning of what would later evolve into a five-year partnership working with the Mumbai Division of Western Railways.

On our first day of engagement in June, barely a month after our meeting with Mr Agarwal, our team assembled at the vast Andheri station, a little apprehensive, but very excited. Since that day, it’s been an incredible journey – in our first year, our bright and driven team were able to engage over 15,000 commuters, both men and women, during one of Mumbai’s worst monsoons. They stood at the stations during the downpour, amidst the din of the station and empowered people with information on what sexual harassment and violence is, and how it can be reported.

They asked questions to commuters about what they thought sexual harassment was – was it whistling? Was it physical contact like groping? What was the most common form of sexual harassment they knew of or had experienced themselves? The team compiled this information along with asking key questions – what would you change, and what could we do better?

India has one of the lowest rates of reporting of sexual violence across the world. While government statistics say that one in three women who experience sexual violence tell someone about the incident, only 1% of women report it to the police. The cultural barriers to reporting are many, however we also know that many women are uncertain about the laws, what constitutes sexual harassment and violence, and to whom they should report such incidents. Often there is a concern that if they come forward, they might be subjected to further harassment or victim shaming at the hands of the authorities.

When we raised this concern with the Western Railway authorities, they acknowledged it and  encouraged us to begin conducting gender sensitivity workshops with their staff.  With their support, we were able to conduct training sessions for members of staff of the Railway Protection Force, the Government Railway Police and other railway departments. We have even engaged with the children of railway staff at their Railways School in Valsad speaking about how to address child sexual abuse and create a more rights respecting society. We also addressed the Western Railway staff on the occasion of International Women’s Day, at the famous Rail Nikunj Hall, and released a jingle which played on trains and at stations “Chup Na Raho, Report Karo”.

Over the years, our work with the Mumbai Division of Western Railways has expanded exponentially. Our partnership is codified in a five year Memorandum of Understanding, from 2017 to 2022. Partnerships only work because both partners see value in the work being done and I could not have asked for better partners. Their management has been immensely supportive, always pushing us to do more and guiding us to explore spaces previously unexplored. They truly share in the vision of making public spaces safer for women.

Today, I am proud to say that we have engaged over 75,000 commuters at ten stations across the Western Line. We have conducted training programmes for the staff of the Western Railways year after year, and possibly the most satisfying, is that we have been able to take the voices of commuters back to the people who can implement changes.

Last year, I spoke with a commuter called Reena over the phone. I asked for her suggestions on how we could improve the safety of women at stations across Mumbai and she responded that this kind of interaction between NGOs, commuters and the railway authorities was very valuable. She felt that it opened the doors for more conversations and for more women to come forward, in an empowered way, to ask and receive help where it was required. She asked me to continue doing the work we were doing and to expand on it. I’m happy to inform Reena, that we took her advice.

This year, we hope to conduct the first safety audit of stations on the Western Line. A safety audit is a report based on nine parameters which assesses the perceived safety of a public space. We plan to ask commuters, vendors at the stations, college students, members of marginalised communities and other stakeholders to assess the stations after dark, along with members of the Western Railways staff, and discuss improvements that would ensure safety and comfort for women. Women like Reena, will now have the opportunity to meet with Western Railway staff first hand to exchange thoughts, ideas and real-life experiences, which often result in the most meaningful change.