Defining Women’s Safety – What’s in the definition?

    • By,
      Rubina – Academic Associate, Kautilya

While extensive research has been conducted on “Women’s Safety” from various perspectives, there is no clear definition of the concept in academia, including gender studies. The necessity to theorize the concept of women’s safety arises from the need for a clear understanding of what falls outside its boundaries. Only by establishing a basic theoretical framework for ‘women’s safety’ can we effectively address its sociological, philosophical, moral, ethical, and political dimensions.

Defining women’s safety becomes pertinent as the interaction of technology, society, and governance presents new challenges to regulatory frameworks. To put it briefly, in the private sphere, women face significant threats from domestic violence, including marital rape and abuse by family members. In the public sphere, they encounter harassment, eve-teasing, and serious crimes such as kidnapping and rape. The cybersphere introduces additional challenges, including online trolling, cyberstalking, and hate campaigns, contributing to a toxic online environment for women. The word “sphere” refers to the idea of avenues of social interaction.

In contemporary literature, a comprehensive definition of Women’s Safety emerged in the report titled ‘The Global Assessment on Women’s Safety,’ published by UN-Habitat. This report identifies aspects such as safe spaces, freedom from poverty, financial security and autonomy, self-worth and acceptance, policies to safeguard against violence and patriarchy, and healthy community discourse as key facets of ‘women’s safety’. This definition is echoed in reports produced by women organizations like Jagori’s Handbook on Women’s Safety Audits. The same definition keeps appearing in later academic literature from time to time.

In the Indian Constitution, Article 21 guarantees the Right to Life and Personal Liberty, encompassing the right to live with dignity and security. The judiciary has interpreted this right broadly, extending it to include safety and protection from violence for all individuals, including women. Notably, the Supreme Court of India, in its Vishaka judgment of 1997, established guidelines to prevent sexual harassment of women in the workplace. These guidelines are founded on principles of equality and non-discrimination, aiming to ensure the safety and dignity of women in their professional environments.

Furthermore, the Directive Principles of State Policy, as outlined in Part IV of the Indian Constitution, place a duty on the state to ensure equal opportunities for both men and women in securing livelihoods and receiving equal pay for equal work (Article 39A). Additionally, Article 42 mandates the state to provide just and humane working conditions and maternity relief for women. The Nirbhaya Act, officially termed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, provides provisions that collectively aim to foster a safer environment for women. Instead of directly defining safety, the act focuses on delineating sexual offences, imposing enhanced penalties for offenders, specifying police duties, safeguarding witnesses, and providing compensation and rehabilitation for victims. Consequently, while the act addresses crucial aspects related to women’s safety, it does not offer a comprehensive legal exploration or definition of the concept.

Furthermore, the concept of safe public spaces originates from the notion of an inclusive public sphere. Women’s safety is a matter that spans both the inclusive public, private and digital spheres, as violence against women, whether physical or psychological, occurs in both realms. Noted German philosopher Habermas posited that in classical societies, while private space denoted a lack of power, public space symbolized the power of citizens to actively participate in political life. Therefore, defining women’s safety solely within the context of the public sphere is problematic, as scholars like Anna Levi have pointed out. Unfortunately, women have limited control over the increasing forms of violence perpetrated against them across all spheres: public, private, and digital.

Let us also talk about the heterogeneity and diverse population across India. Women are not a homogenous community. Often, their issues and challenges are not unitary but conform to layers of social barriers and challenges. Thus, addressing the issue of women’s safety in India should consider the intersecting factors of gender, class, caste, religion, and demography.

The understanding of what is safe and unsafe for an Indian woman is often influenced by deeply ingrained cultural, social, and economic dynamics, which may or may not always align with pre-established Western or global north notions of safety and empowerment. This lack of understanding and representation of our women worth mentioning Indian subaltern women in mainstream discourse further marginalizes their voices and experiences. The narratives surrounding women’s safety often centre on urban, middle-class perspectives, neglecting the unique challenges faced by marginalized women. As a result, the discourse may not resonate with or adequately address the needs of all the women’s communities, leaving them feeling alienated, unsafe, and disempowered.

Hence, defining women’s safety necessitates the consideration of safe spaces across all three realms: private, public, and digital. Discussions on enhancing women’s safety through handheld device-based platforms or mobile applications must comprehensively ensure the safety of all these spaces. The North-South divide has also contributed to a lack of alignment between feminist movements in South Asia and those in other regions. India’s unique demographic and social landscape, existing across different ages simultaneously, further complicates these dynamics.

Thus, more inclusive policy initiatives for Indian women, especially about their safety, require the idea of fixing a frame when it comes to providing constitutional and legal definitions of women’s safety.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.