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International Women's Day: Why Aren’t We More Concerned About Women’s Physical Safety?

Maitreyi Bordia Das's picture

Fundamental rights in most South Asian countries include freedom of movement – you can go where you want, when you want within a country. But for the majority of South Asian girls and women the reality is very different – they need permission to go almost anywhere. Now, does this stem from norms of patriarchal control or a rational response to threat of physical harm? I like to believe the two are mutually reinforcing. When families are afraid of what will happen to their daughters when they go out alone, they tend to be over-protective or over-controlling. This is certainly what happened to me and my peers as we grew up in Delhi in the 70s and 80s. While many more women are out in public spaces now, the very fact of this visibility is often a trigger for violence. Fewer than half of married women surveyed in Pakistan or Bangladesh feel safe moving alone outside their village or settlement, even during the day (World Bank 2006, 2008).

Safety and security of women in public spaces is seen often as a right, which indeed it is, but, lack of it is also a huge impediment to accessing a range of services and markets – for instance, health care, education and employment. In Pakistan and India, one of the reasons why girls drop out of school after puberty and especially when secondary schools are located a long walk away, is the fear of violence en route.