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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.

The National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) in India in 2005 and the Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey in 2004 both show that women who don’t receive antenatal care say overwhelmingly that they didn’t think it was important. And health care professionals wring their hands about “lack of demand”. I am arguing that what seems to be low demand can often be the result of lack of security over and above the unpredictability of the service (that is, not knowing whether the doctor will be available even if they manage to get the health center). In the forthcoming India Human Development Report, the authors find that over one-third of the women surveyed said they could not go alone to the health center . In our recent multivariate analysis using the India NFHS 2005, we find that after controlling for a range of family and individual characteristics, both ability to go out alone to seek health care and experience of spousal violence are statistically significant correlates of accessing antenatal care.

Making public spaces safe for women is a major step forward towards enhancing women’s access to these spaces. Anecdotal evidence about the pressure on local administrations in Indian cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Pune, where the new outsourcing industry employs young women working night shifts, indicates that governmental response to such pressure is important. Moreover, issues of security in general and women’s security in particular have been taken up by India’s National Association of Software and Service Companies. Backing by such influential lobbies is important in ensuring that security concerns are addressed, but in rural areas, women seldom have lobbies that articulate this demand.

Violence against women in the home is increasingly been seen as a development issue in addition to being a core rights one. But, threats to physical security in public spaces continue with impunity, and the same geographical band that shows poor health, education and employment outcomes for women and girls – namely, extending from Afghanistan, through Pakistan, north India and parts of Bangladesh – is also the band where women and girls are often too scared to venture out.


Submitted by Unknown on
Very nice blog. Poor physical safety and lack of access to space are the biggest "gender taxes" on girls and wiomen in South Asia. These taxes are distortionary because men are exempt from such taxes. Such gender taxes are borne disproportionately by poorer and uneducated girls and women. But there is hope. There are more women joining the labor force in the dynamic service sector in big cities. But the challenges still remain huge.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I found the personal commentary based on the author's experience growing up in Delhi to be completely unrepresentative of the populations, which cover diverse regions with multiple religious influences. Female populations in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and other South Asia countries, the majority of which live in rural areas devoid of resources and facilities like those found in Delhi often require the permission of the male head of the household to leave their home let alone village. While security has been a valid concern in some cases, in most, it is the patriarchal norms coupled with the pressures of conformity prevalent in collectivist cultures that reinforce women's lack of mobility both socially and physically and often renders them powerless to determine their course in life.

The whole issue of women and access to services is centered around what the discourse on women has become. Patriarchal norms are then refurbished with "societal rights and wrongs" and what we deem to be imposed. The people in a village are the one's who develop the fear or no fear situation and therefore its pertinent to change the mind sets there. It is very important that awareness is brought in as to change the mind sets of women in the communities, that brings a far more and better change.

Thanks for the comments. Personal narratives are indeed unrepresentative but the point was that even in large cities, safety is an issue. Also agree on the point that norms and safety are too interwoven to separate out usefully. However, enforcement of higher safety standards and swift punitive action will likely help all around.

Both are interlinked. And what makes it worse is that along with physical safety of the girl, there is much bigger concern about her family's honor and keeping the girl in 'control'. If the concern was purely for the girl's safety then the parents wouldn't hesitate to report a crime against her, also they won't disown a girl-child once she is married and they won't let her be beaten, raped or even killed by her spouse or his family. There seems to be a concern for making sure she remains 'marriageable' and once she's been married, her parents forget about her.

Submitted by AMBRISH on
"In our recent multivariate analysis using the India NFHS 2005, we find that after controlling for a range of family and individual characteristics, both ability to go out alone to seek health care and experience of spousal violence are statistically significant correlates of accessing antenatal care" Do you mind sharing the research paper? I am a research student (Economics) and I am trying to evaluate the Janani Suraksha Yojna. Your article might point to some reasons why I am unable to find any significant effects of the scheme. Thanks, Ambrish Dongre, Ph. D. Student, Dept. of Economics, UCSC, Santa Cruz, CA.

Thanks for your comment. We should have the analysis ready to be shared by end April. The size of the coefficiants is larger for "any antenatal vist" than for "all antenatal visits". We want to make sure our analysis is robust to consistency checks which we are doing now. Please stay in touch.

Submitted by Seemeen Saadat on
Interesting piece. I agree that women's mobility is affected by both a fear for physical safety and social norms. Public works programs such as lighted roads and secure transport for women are some ways of addressing the public safety concerns although perhaps harder finance in sparsely populated rural areas. While employment schemes that encourage women to step into the public sphere are important elements in changing perceptions and behaviors in the long-term, if the goal is to change negative perceptions and behaviors towards women, it may be useful to back up these by (a) fostering respectful work environments, (b)programs such as self-defense training for women, and in general (c)information and knowledge campaigns that influence attitudes (on the media, in schools, at work) and (d) enforcement and accountability of law (or legal reform where needed) to discourage harrassment (or worse) of women in public spaces such as markets.

Submitted by Anonymous on
A good article indeed. Rahul sent me a link for various important books on women and child studies at Just check if you find it useful.

Submitted by Martial Arts on

Women must not depend upon the protection of man , but must be taught to protect herself. Every women must know martial arts so that she don’t have to live with fear anymore.
martial arts

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