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How India is battling sexual violence: gender classes for Delhi rickshaw drivers

Five years after a notorious rape and murder, 100,000 taxi drivers are being conscripted in the fight to change traditional male mindsets

In the dim classroom, the low lights form a halo around Achyuta Dyansamantra as he strides back and forth before a whiteboard, intoning into the microphone like a preacher.

“If you stare at a woman for more than 14 seconds, that can land you in jail,” he tells the audience. Singing to women in public or passing lewd remarks is also banned, he says. “Whether you agree with it or not, the law is the law.”

About 100 faces stare back, many scribbling notes, some toying with their phones. These men in grey-blue safari suits are some of more than 100,000 commercial drivers who operate taxis and rickshaws in the teeming Indian capital, Delhi.

Since a gang rape and murder five years ago incensed the nation, such “gender sensitisation” classes have become mandatory to renew commercial driving licences in the city.

As the anniversary of the death of physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh approaches, advocates for Indian women say these classes are helping to change a patriarchal culture, one that has proved more stubborn to reform than the country’s laws against sexual harassment and assault.

One thickly-bearded and turbaned driver has been raising his hand patiently during the class. “Generally, all the rape happens in India and not in foreign countries,” he says when finally called on. “Why is that so?” The man answers himself before Dyansamantra can speak. “In this country, if you want to have sex, you cannot do so – that’s why there is rape,” he says.

Dyansamantra frowns. “We will discuss this later on,” he says. (Delhi does have a red-light district, he adds.)

The city’s army of rickshaw and taxi drivers pose no particular threat to women. As in other cities, sexual violence in the capital is most frequently committed by men known to their victims. “If drivers were a problem, the Delhi transport system would have come to a stop,” says Rutika Sharma, a social worker who helps run the schemes, developed by the Delhi-based Manas Foundation, a mental health group.

But as growing numbers of women venture out to work and simply live their lives, they are coming into more frequent contact with commercial drivers – some from backgrounds where the idea of an independent woman is still relatively new. “We are trying to explain things in 40 minutes or one hour, that they have been seeing for 40 years,” Sharma says.

Changing regressive mindsets is the aim of the class. “Clothing is a major argument,” Sharma says. “Some drivers say fashion – what the girls are wearing – is not Indian culture. They say we are copying other countries.” Inevitably, some raise this kind of clothing as a contributing factor to sexual harassment or assault. “We tell them rape cases are increasing with girls aged six months or two years old,” says Dyansamantra. “Or we show them stories of an 82-year-old lady being raped by some man. We ask the drivers: what was she wearing? And they realise – everything is a mindset.”

Women drinking is also a big issue, says Sharma, especially in Hauz Khas Village, a south Delhi neighbourhood of bars and restaurants. “If a girl goes to Hauz Khas, she is a not a good girl. It’s a bad place, where a girl cannot go. That is their mindset,” she says.

Drivers frequently push back. “They say: you are modern children of Delhi universities, so you can talk like this, but we can’t. We are deep-rooted Indians,” she says. “But we tell them everything is changing. Now your taxi needs an AC. You have good phones. You are sending your own daughters to school, which you didn’t do before. You are giving your children this change, so why don’t you accept it?”

Where moral persuasion fails, an appeal to the pocket can be effective. “We tell them 70% of their passengers are women. We run their business,” Sharma says. “So if we won’t come out, how will the drivers earn?”

At the end of each class, drivers receive a sticker for their vehicle. “Along with my taxi, I also drive a campaign to end violence against women”, one declares. Another says: “Women’s respect and safety is my honour and duty”.

Outside the training centre, Subhash Chander is reclined in the backseat of his rickshaw, smoking a cigarette. “Of course you have to respect women,” he says. “But I’m an old man. Why do I need to attend such a class?” Much has changed in the four decades he has driven rickshaws in Delhi. “When I started, there were few women passengers,” he says. “Now every office has women, and most of them take autos.”

It is not a development he welcomes. “Generally, 99% of women behave wrongly,” he says. “They are having mobiles and all these things. They don’t know how to talk to elders.”

Another driver, Kanak Mandol, arrived in Delhi a year ago from a village in Bihar state. “What they are teaching is right,” he says of the classes. “But the passengers are wrong.” The day before, a young couple he was driving pulled the leather curtain of his rickshaw down and began to kiss in the backseat. “The girls and boys we pick up do mischief,” Mandol, 24, says. “If they did that in my village they’d break their legs.”

Mohammad Sajjid is more sanguine about how women in Delhi compare with those in his village in western Uttar Pradesh state. “Here women are educated, they take up the whole rickshaw,” he says. “They pay independently.” That is good for business. “Without women, how will we make money?” I find [the classes] very good. I am involved in religion, so I agree with what they say.”

A report from Human Rights Watch this month found Indian laws for protecting women had significantly improved in the last five years. Degrading “two-finger” tests – in which doctors insert their hands into women’s vaginas to determine a woman’s virginity – were outlawed in 2013. Offences such as stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment are now included in the Indian penal code.

What holds back progress is attitudes: too often, especially outside big cities, the implementation of the new laws is stymied by judges, police and village leaders, the report said.

Changing behaviour is harder than amending the law, says Swati Maliwal, the Delhi commissioner for women. But it is possible, she says. “It is about systems and deterrence and changing mindsets.”

As an example, she points to another form of transport, the Delhi metro, a strikingly clean and efficient system in a city renowned for dirt and chaos. “People come from all over to use [the metro],” she says. “Villagers, city dwellers, and people of all classes. But they behave themselves and keep it clean and follow the rules.”

Dyansamantra and his colleagues at the Manas Foundation know the daily struggle involving in changing mindsets. But he insists they are making progress. “Yesterday one driver told me that girls shouldn’t laugh loudly in India. They shouldn’t show their teeth,” he says.

“And the other drivers shouted at him. ‘What kind of nonsense are you telling people?’ they said. When I talked to him afterwards, he said, ‘I think I was wrong, please forgive me.’ The drivers are starting to listen. They’re hearing and countering each other. That’s the best thing.”

The instructors are learning too. Sharma smiles as she recalls the advice an older driver gave her in a recent class. “Daughter, you are trying to light small lamps,” he said. “In this class of 100 people, some are sleeping, some are saying India is modernising and forgetting its culture and these girls are wild. But if in this class of 100 people, 15 or 20 will try to understand what you’re talking about, then 15 or 20 lamps will light. If you reach 20 people in a class of 100, there will be change.”

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