Mumbai: India's richest girls and young women, aged 11 to 18, felt the least safe among all income groups in public spaces, according to a new report that explored safety perceptions among adolescent girls.

Across urban (47%) and rural (40%) areas, young girls reported feeling more susceptible to molestation or abuse while using public transport, said the report, Wings 2018: World Of India’s Girls, released by Save The Children in India, an international non-governmental organisation. This finding was particularly true for girls from higher income groups (53%), belonging to the other backward classes (OBC) and general castes (45%), according to the study

Girls from medium and small towns (51%) reported feeling more unsafe than those in large cities (44%), small villages (42%) and large villages (39%).

“A possible reason [for greater fear among adolescent girls of higher income groups] could be that these girls lead a more cocooned life without the required level of resilience and therefore feel relatively more threatened,” the study said.

India is considered to be the least safe country in the world for women with the worst record for sexual violence, harassment from cultural and traditional practices, and human trafficking, according to a global perception poll carried out by Thomson Reuters Foundation, IndiaSpend reported on June 26, 2018. A failure to improve conditions led to the country now ranking the most dangerous for women, after it ranked fourth in the previous poll of 2011.

Conducted across six states--Assam, Delhi-National Capital Region, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and West Bengal--the adolescent girls’ perception report covers the east, west, north, south, central and north-east of India, surveying across 30 cities and 84 villages in 12 districts. The sample included 3,128 adolescent girls, 1,141 young men (aged 15-18), 248 young women (aged 19-22) forced to marry early, and 842 parents of adolescent girls.

Within their respective regions, the selected states performed worst on child sex ratio; incidence of crime against women; early marriage; spousal violence against women; and working women, the report said.

After public transportation, narrow roads leading to school, local markets or private tuition were regarded as most unsafe. Young women belonging to scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) from lower income households found these areas particularly unsafe.

Over a quarter of young women from large cities (28%), especially those from low income groups and slums, said they felt unsafe in cinema halls, the study found.

“A plausible explanation for this could be that these girls from the slums or the economically weaker section fear that their complaints may go unheard in a place occupied by the relatively better placed--class wise and caste wise,” the study observed. “Maybe for similar reasons, SC and ST girls find the school and the road to the school more unsafe compared to general caste and OBC girls.”

Girls least likely to report molestation/abuse to police or teachers

In urban and rural areas, girls reported feeling most comfortable confiding in their mother, father, close friends and peers, if subjected to molestation or abuse in public. They were less likely to confide in siblings and other relatives and least likely to approach teachers, other school staff and the local police.

“Besides, adolescent girls, their parents and brothers felt that finally it is the ‘name’ of the family and the girl which will be negatively affected--providing an iteration of ‘family honour’ that accompanies girls and women,” the report observed, describing a “trust deficit” with policing and judicial systems.

“Most of them were against going to the police because they (the police) were considered insensitive. It is also perceived that the process involves lot of time and resources and, in the end, damages the reputation of the girl.”

Girls avoided confiding in families because they feared restrictions on leaving home; this was more in urban (49%) than rural (36%) areas.

The second-most reported reason for not confiding in their families was fear of retribution, the report found; 44% of urban adolescent girls and 38% rural girls felt they would be scolded for “letting” themselves be harrassed.

Over 50% of parents agreed that they would “probably end up scolding their daughters” for “letting” sexual harassment occur, while 42% admitted they were likely to regulate their daughters’ movement in public spaces thereafter, the study found.

Less than half of India’s girls leave home to meet friends, take morning walks, play in parks

Generally, more urban than rural young girls and women used public spaces, the report said.

For urban and rural areas, “going to school” was the most universally accepted safe public space (96%) for girls, the study found. Attending private tuition--significantly higher for urban (54%) than rural (32%) residents--followed.

After public transportation, local markets, private tuitions or roads leading to school were regarded as most unsafe among young girls, as we said.

Less than half of adolescent girls in urban areas (41%) could go out to meet friends; in rural areas, no more than a third of girls (34%) could.

Among adolescent girls surveyed in urban areas, only a fifth or 20% felt they could safely play in a public park or go for a morning walk; no more than 15% of girls in rural areas felt similarly.

Young girls also perceived a higher risk of molestation and other gender-related crimes at crowded public places, such as local markets in urban (41%) and rural areas (37%).

Here too, young women from higher and middle-economic classes (42%), belonging to the OBC/general castes (40%), reported a higher perception of risk.

Despite the fear of narrow roads leading to schools, private tuitions and markets, over 80% of young girls preferred walking to these public areas than using public transport, the study found. Cycling also emerged as a popular choice among adolescent girls in small and medium towns, where traffic is lower and perception of risk in using public transport was highest, as we said.

“The sample selected was not representative of a pan-India picture but aimed to assist studying in depth the prevailing perceptions on the issue of safety of girls in public spaces, the related dynamics and implications,” the report said.

(Saldanha is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.)

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