Donna Fernandes, founder of Vimochana, an NGO that works for women’s rights, is harried for the past few weeks. She’s been trying and get a shelter, ration and compensation for a victim of domestic violence.
Working in this field for forty years, she finds that the issues that plague society and affect women victims, remain unchanged. Like `the more things change, the more they don’t’.
Take for instance, the Nirbhaya Fund, set up by the Central government after the December 16, 2012 gang rape in Delhi. The fund was to help survivors of violence and improve infrastructure to support women in distress.
Almost six years after it was set up, it came to light in 2019 that most of the fund went unused in several states. One of the reasons was that the projects had to be in 40:60 partnership with state governments, the Centre being the larger funder.
In Karnataka, only 7% of the allocated fund of Rs 193 crore was used. And, Bengaluru, as per the last NCRB data, is one of the most unsafe cities for women.
Reliance on CCTV
Around the same time, the Karnataka government cleared a proposal to install CCTV cameras across the city as part of the Safe City Project. The project cost was estimated at Rs 650 crore, and the money was sought under the Nirbhaya Fund.
“In all 7500 CCTV cameras will be installed. The idea of policing works as a deterrent. When people know someone is watching you, they will refrain from committing crimes. The cameras will also help in investigation. These cameras will have artificial intelligence and analytics.”Commissioner of Police Kamal Pant told Citizen Matters“
The project. which includes installation and maintenance of the cameras for five years, ran into trouble after allegations of malpractices in the tendering process, levelled by one senior police officer against another. An enquiry was initiated and Kamal Pant himself is heading it.
Controversy and allegations apart, installation of CCTVs itself has been a point of contention. Many activists, even police officers, question the excessive reliance on CCTV for prevention of crimes, not to mention issues of privacy.
“Basic facilities like toilets for women, buses for women during peak hours, electrification of bus stands etc will go a long way in women’s safety. CCTV is there but nowadays troublemakers first break the cameras. Often, they are not working. Maintenance is an issue too,” says a police officer, who did want to be named.
Funds for women’s safety could be given to multiple agencies like BESCOM and BMTC instead of only the Home Department, the officer adds.
“Everything needs to be looked at in context. CCTV may be a deterrent but good street lighting is very important to make public spaces feel safe. The state looks at it from a project perspective,” says Geeta Menon, of Stree Jagruti Samiti.
“Apart from CCTV, we need procedural mechanisms for harassment, stalking, obscenity, cyber-crime. Many times, the CCTVs are damaged, switched off or data is deleted.”Geeta Menon, Stree Jagruti Samiti
What deserves priority
Activists are worried if the whole saga will end up being a missed opportunity to take concrete measures for women’s safety. Bengaluru, as per the last NCRB data is one of the most unsafe cities for women.
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Donna points out that there is neither transparency nor a consultative process in use of this fund. So many women’s organisations that have been working for decades, she says, can identify areas where the funds would be required.
“I am currently trying to get a victim of domestic violence to stay at the shelter (Sakhi Centre) but they are asking her to go back. She doesn’t have money for ration and is staying in the same house as the abusive husband. We need infrastructure to help cases like these,” Donna pleads.
The complete disconnect between the police and victims of violence needs addressing, she points out. “Cops and those at shelters often advise the woman in distress to go back home. Often, she has had to escape with difficulty. Basic infrastructure such as access to Sakhi centres, transport, signages to find the shelters, facilities like toilets at police stations… so many things need to be done.”
Geeta Menon stresses on the mechanisms for complaint, prosecution and compensation. She also highlighted the need to make the one stop crisis centres more accessible.
“We are told that the survivors are entitled to compensation, but interim compensation varies from person to person, case to case. Funds should be used for providing relief such as shelter, medical help, counselling, legal assistance, psychotherapy, subsistence and so on,” says Geeta.
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While CCTV may be one way to prevention, there are far deeper issues to be tackled, the activists say. Durga, an NGO founded after the Nirbhaya incident, is trying to address the issue of every day safety for women.
Meenakshi Giridhar, trustee and director, programmes, says, “It is all about behaviour. We are trying to address what happens when a woman walks on the street on a daily basis and is robbed of her dignity. We are working with BMTC, educating and sensitising drivers and conductors. We are working with children, boys from homes, and government schools. The conversation needs to start there.”
Durga, who came up with the panic alarm system in BMTC buses, work with street vendors. As bystanders, they can respond to a situation and not turn a blind eye.
“The government doesn’t realise the power of public awareness. Just see how it was done in handling the pandemic. Public awareness about saying no to harassment needs to be built a lot more strongly,” Meenakshi says,
Advocating the inclusion of gender studies in the early education system will go a long way, she says “Ours is a systemic problem, we need collective activism. Reformative systems take a long time, there are no short-term measures.”
While NGOs do their bit, only government has the bandwidth to effect large scale systemic changes. But the system renders even governmental agencies working for women largely toothless.
Former chairperson of the state women’s commission, Nagalakshmi Bai, spoke of the body’s limitations.
“I have handled 14000 cases in my tenure. All 32 districts have unique and different problems, child marriage, female foeticide, harassment, trafficking. Everything depends on the police department; we cannot do much. These funds need to be used judiciously for different challenges. The government is not using the money well. Reaching rural women is the biggest challenge.”Nagalakshmi Bai, Former Chairperson, State Women’s Commission
Commissioner Kamal Pant says they are aware of these challenges. “Apart from CCTVs, other proposals are already in progress. We will have counsellors in every police station, 218 in all. It will change the culture of policing. If the first responder is non-police, it will change the culture,” says he.
Counselling centres, temporary shelters/safety islands for women in distress, legal education and self defence training for girls and so on are in the offing, he says.