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

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ImageFundamental 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.


Maitreyi Bordia Das

Director, Trust Funds and Partner Relations, Development Finance (DFi)

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