If the Indian government thought that the recent handing out of death sentences to those responsible for the gang-rape of a student in Delhi last year would deter a repeat of the assault, it was wrong. The latest case of a 51-year-old Danish woman, attacked and gang-raped this week, can only reinforce Delhi’s image as the rape capital of India.
It is clear that a great deal more needs to be done to protect the safety of women in the city, especially foreigners who like to walk around the city and may not recognise the danger signals.
Reports say the woman got lost as she tried to make her way back to her hotel in Paharganj, an area popular with backpackers because it is close to historic Old Delhi and New Delhi Railway Station. She asked a group of men for directions and was lured into the one of the area’s many dark corners and assaulted.
The Delhi police have arrested two homeless men in connection with the crime. India’s cities are full of disillusioned men who have lost their moral compass but Delhi seems to have a particular problem. Drink, drugs and pornography also play a role in such attacks.
Delhi native and tourist guide Surekha Narain, who runs Delhi Metro Walks, says the city has always had a problem with attacks on females. “You are much safer in Mumbai”, she says. “It’s been bad here for many years and it’s getting worse. It is also being reported a lot more”.
Like many Delhi residents, Ms Narain doesn’t hail street cabs any longer but phones for a radio cab, saying they are safer as they vet their drivers. I have taken her advice ever since I took one of the city’s yellow-and-black taxis following a night flight and had an unnerving interrogation about sex from its young driver, who looked nothing like the photograph of the man licensed to drive it.
Female visitors to Delhi do need to take particular care. It is just not the done thing to go up to a group of men and ask for directions as this Danish woman is said to have done. Instead, go into a shop or a cafe to read a map or ask for help.
The Foreign Office says it now advises lone female visitors to Delhi – including its own staff – to avoid travelling on public transport, or in taxis or auto-rickshaws, after dark. If the journey is necessary it recommends ordering a taxi through the hotel or using the radio taxi counter at the airport.
Despite local and foreign media highlighting the scale of attacks on women in the city, the authorities have done very little to make the streets safer. Last summer, the National Tourism Advisory Council issued badges to taxi drivers and guides saying “I respect women”. It is hard to think of a more useless gesture.
What is needed is for the police, the courts and Indian society to take the issue a lot more seriously. In a male-dominated society like India, this is going to be a hard task. Only last autumn, a high court judge in Madras, announcing a fast-track legal process for rapists, suggested that it would help if women stayed at home to avoid putting themselves in danger.
India’s first woman Additional Solicitor General, Indira Jaising, took him to task by quoting Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “India cannot claim to have attained true independence until all women can walk on the streets be it at midnight without fear of being molested or raped”.
The latest Foreign Office advice, updated on its website today, states: “Women should use caution when travelling in India. British women have been the victims of sexual assault in Goa, Delhi, Bangalore and Rajasthan and women travellers often receive unwanted attention in the form of verbal and physical harassment by individuals or groups of men.
“Serious sexual attacks involving Polish, German and Danish women travellers have been reported so far in 2014. Women travellers should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group.”