Why we need to expand our understanding of women’s safety to go beyond personal safety

As India races to become an economic superpower, the country lacks safety for women – with an alarming number of women dying each year from road accidents and fire-related deaths

Today’s Indian woman is the “Bharatiya Nari” – an ideal Indian woman – in the remake. As Bharatiya Nari, she has always been the mother and guardian of culture and values. She was more indoors and content to be in the center of the house, less visible from the outside, and not part of the hustle and bustle of economic activity. But we have already seen that change. As India’s economy and society embrace new frontiers, today’s Indian woman is increasingly becoming part of public places, claiming her rightful place in society and the commercial world. She assures that she is heard. Juggling between work, marriage, children and home, or abandoning one for the benefit of the other, the women of our country have surely come a long way, even if there is still a long way to go.

An irrefutable reality that unfortunately has not changed, and has hardened over time, is the issue of women’s safety. It has been three years and three months since the unfortunate incident at Nirbhaya captured the attention of the whole nation and the world. Since then, much has been promised and budgets sanctioned for women’s safety, but we know that little has changed in recent years. Time and time again, we must bow our heads in shame, not only for the continuing series of events, but also for our inability to face such a threat with determination. It is therefore only natural that women’s empowerment efforts, both in government and in business, should focus more on gender sensitivity, inclusivity and safety from sexual assault.

There are also other aspects of safety that become relevant when it comes to women’s safety – road safety and fire safety, for example. With the growing need to travel, public transport systems and infrastructure must ensure the safety of users. Women need to feel safe in public places, and children are also another vulnerable category when it comes to road safety.

The sad truth about the fires:

According to a recent report published in IndiaSpends, women between 15 years old and 50 years of age in India is more prone to firesrelated deaths than anywhere else in the world. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that 62% of the more than 17,700 Indians who died in fires in 2015 were women. One might speculate that the combined forces of a poor safety culture, energy poverty and general poverty drive women to engage in open fire cooking in rural areas, contributing to many of the deaths related to fires, as the World Health Organization suggests.

With increasing urbanization and population density, residential fires in urban areas, often blamed on gas leaks, are considered the deadliest, contributing 42% of total fires, according to the latest NCRB report. With the increased distribution of LPG, the risk of fire also increases. Even though the 1906 hotline was set up by petroleum marketing companies to report LPG leaks, ongoing fire safety training is the need of the hour.

Another area where women are at increased fire risk is in labour-intensive industrial segments, such as garments. The April 2013 Rana Tower tragedy in Bangladesh should be a constant reminder to us to be ever vigilant.

On the roads :

With the need to move comes the ability to participate in economic opportunities. With poor infrastructure in terms of quality and quantity, women are at a significant disadvantage here. We all know India’s deadly roads claim 400 lives every day. While the proportion of female victims is lower than that of males in a comparative sense today, this may change as women’s participation in the labor market increases.

As the collaborative study of Transport Research and Injury Prevention Program (TRIPP) and IIT Delhi in 2015 points out that women account for a more than proportionate share of two-wheeler/pedestrian fatalities in India. yet another study by the International Institute for Labor Studies indicates that female riders do not comply with helmet use.

Culture of safety:

Alongside legislative measures and technical interventions, the development of a safety culture is essential. Better education and awareness can help us move from a ‘fatalistic response’ to accidents to one where we are aware and make ‘safe choices’. Children are best influenced to make “safe choices” by education at school and by parents at home. Our metros and stations must be better lit and our pedestrian crossings must be well marked. Safety education can start in the kitchen, where the hostess, still today, undeniably plays the main role.

How can we increase the scope of security in our conversations?

The above reality calls for dedicated action from all of us. While the ultimate goal would be to improve India’s safety culture, awareness and education is the logical and urgent first step. Like all critical issues, increasing the reach of the conversation would require comprehensive participation from government, the private sector, the media and the target population themselves. The government has several initiatives for the welfare and empowerment of women – Beti Bachchao, Beti Padao program, Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) for pregnant and lactating women, for example. However, there is no specific regime that deals with fire safety. With the current Center government vehemently promoting the free LPG cylinder scheme for poor women, perhaps it should also include important fire safety messages.

The fire department itself has a huge role to play here. Creative solutions leveraging technology are the need of the hour. For example, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services and Tamil Nadu Women Development Corporation Limited have jointly set up a training program for women in various self-help groups in fire prevention and to promote safe fire practices. And there are many more.

Growth criterion

In a rapidly changing society like ours, the safety of women and children is a good indicator of how we manage our economic growth and social transformation. Proactive measures are urgently needed in various areas and at different levels. Gender-responsive infrastructure, vigorous advocacy efforts, and strong legislative and judicial systems are the backbone of any such effort. We need to elevate and intensify discussions about the safety of women and children to the highest level in order to catch up with decades of neglect, to transform ourselves into a leading society and economy.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

Mara R. Wilmoth