Amid the crush of commuters on the Calcutta Metro, it is easy to miss Saswati Ghosh in her bright-blue metro-issued sari as she carefully inspects the subway station.
This year, the metro system handed a single station over to a team of female employees, who fill all the roles from management to fare collection, policing and maintenance. Ms. Ghosh, the station superintendent, is in charge of the operation.
It is one of many strategies in India aimed at empowering women in the work force and providing security to female passengers in a country that has faced a public reckoning over women’s safety on transportation. The idea is that women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed will feel more comfortable approaching female staff, including transit police.
Since the death of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh after a 2012 gang rape on a bus in Delhi, India has been attempting to address women’s safety. But questions remain about how well women are protected in one of the world’s most populated countries, and whether their concerns about safety in transit are limiting their ability to participate fully in society.
India was named the most dangerous country in the world for women this year in a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The report cited government data which showed that four cases of rape were reported every hour. And while the Indian government and others have challenged the methodology and results of the study, what is clear is that keeping women safe in India remains a struggle.
According to statistics from the International Labour Organization, the country has seen an unprecedented decrease in women’s participation in the work force, dropping from 36.8 per cent in 2005 to 26.7 per cent in 2016 despite increasing educational achievement and decreasing fertility rates. Some reports suggest fear of using public transportation could be a factor.
Ananya Kundu, a student of English literature at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, says she has been groped twice on transportation but did not officially report either incident, believing authorities would not treat her seriously.
“I think the only form of oppression that Indians are aware that women go through are the extreme forms domestic violence or rape,” Ms. Kundu said. “Eve teasing [harassment] or getting groped on public transit has become so normalized people don’t even realize it’s happening.”
She said while she has seen some change in attitude, she still feels most comfortable when using transportation with women-only sections, which India has many of. Buses, subway cars and intercity trains have women-only areas, and new options continue to proliferate. She thinks Calcutta’s female-run metro station is a positive step for increasing women’s visibility in a traditionally male-dominated space and will help to ease some female commuters' worries – particularly during after-dark travel.
The female-only staff project at Netaji Bhavan metro station launched on International Women’s Day this year. Ms. Ghosh says that although she and her employees have busy lives, between being the primary caregivers for their families and working full time, the team enjoys the all-female environment.
Ms. Ghosh says the women who work at the station feel a sense of pride in what they do, which in some instances has outpaced other stations for ticket sales and has recently won an award for best cleaning and maintenance in the city. She says if female passengers have an issue on transit, they may feel more comfortable bringing it to staff than at other stations.
Yet, despite women’s safety initiatives that have launched across India since the gang rape in 2012, experts say much more is needed. “There are a lot of efforts happening,” said Arlie Mathew of the Kerala State Women’s Development Corporation Ltd. (KSWDC), but, “it’s still a sorry state for women.”
As a result, transportation options are in high demand. In addition to women-only sections on regular transit, the country has fleets of auto rickshaws and taxi services for women with female drivers, and multiple commuter trains devoted to female passengers.
These initiatives have had their share of problems. Women-only trains in some places have drawn protests from men who are forced to ride more-crowded trains, and some female rickshaw drivers have received threats from male drivers who do not want the competition. Other initiatives, such as Kerala’s She Taxi, have struggled for financial viability in India’s changing transportation landscape.
She Taxi was launched in 2013 as a cab service for women driven by women, partly in response to the Singh case, but also to empower the drivers. It received global press coverage and the World Bank called it a good model of sustainable entrepreneurship. In the early days, the initiative had celebrity endorsements and the fleet of women drivers in pink Suzukis earned good money.
Jaicy Ramesh was the first to pass the exam to become a driver for She Taxi. She liked the attention the company received in the beginning, and says that, at the time, drivers were like celebrities themselves. But five years later, she is not nearly as busy and the service is struggling. The fares are now very high and, in some cases, can be about double that of options like Uber and the Indian company Ola Cabs.
The 30 female drivers now cater primarily to middle-class clients who can afford the high rates, many of them female tech workers whose companies pay the fares for shift workers. Dhanya Warrier, who works in a technology park in Thiruvananthapuram, said she feels more comfortable having a female driver when returning home from her late shifts and is grateful to the women who have taken on these jobs. "They are ensuring our safety.”
Ms. Mathew is a project officer for She Taxi with KSWDC, which runs the initiative. She says the company wants to develop technology to compete with ride-sharing services, but needs more drivers. A recent call for applicants received few responses.
Even in south India, where it’s seen as more progressive with its higher literacy rates and development levels, women remain responsible for the lion’s share of domestic duties and often cannot take jobs that involve irregular hours.
Ms. Mathew says that while demand remains high for women-only transportation, she hopes that with education, these initiatives will one day no longer be needed. “We can’t keep segregating women,” she said. “The society should be aware that every citizen has the right to live, and live with freedom and you know, be safe.”