For Women Living Alone in Delhi, Security Concerns Heightened
March 2, 2016
On Monday, Delhi Police Commissioner Alok Verma called on Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to discuss pressing issues concerning law and order in the city. With eight out of 10 women in Delhi fearing for their safety, it is encouraging that the new commissioner views strengthening women’s security as a priority.
For women living alone, these concerns are elevated. The concept of women living alone is frowned upon in Indian society, which continues to be patriarchal. It is uncommon for women to leave one’s patriarchal home and choose to live in an urban space on her own, and those who choose to do so are often viewed as “helpless” and considered vulnerable targets for crime. Women sometimes have difficulty finding housing without being married, and some even face harassment from neighbors and community members. Unmarried women have reported higher instances of sexual harassment at the workplace and on the street. However, with the onset of urbanization and the increased participation of women in the workforce in the past few decades, more women are challenging this status quo and seeking jobs and educational opportunities away from their hometown and far from their families.
Anecdotal research indicates that women living alone in Delhi constitute a sizeable population, but no one has formally studied the challenges these women face. To fill this gap, over the last 10 months, The Asia Foundation has supported a survey conducted by the Human Development Society (HDS), which for the first time captures and analyzes the challenges faced by women living alone in Delhi. These findings have been shared with the Government of Delhi, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and civil society organizations.
HDS interviewed more than 500 women in all of Delhi’s 11 districts. While the majority of respondents are under 45 years old and educated, working professionals, others are daily wage earners, sex workers, and homeless women. Of the total number of women interviewed, 90 percent are not married (single, widowed, or divorced). Of those, thirty-six percent of respondents cited education and professional training as the reason for living alone, while 33 percent said they lived alone because they were engaged in service-related employment. A smaller sample of respondents reported living alone because of poverty, homelessness, or because they are engaged in sex work.
The study reveals that despite their various reasons for living alone and diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, one of the most common challenges these women face is a lack of safety and security in both the private and public spaces. This ranges from harassment and lewd comments by neighbors, community members, or colleagues; to theft and insecurity at home and in the workplace; to physical violence; and insecurity due to the long work hours or commuting at off-peak hours. In contrast, married women or women living with family often rely on their families for support to confront these challenges.
The women surveyed reported making deliberate lifestyle choices in the interest of their own safety, such as avoiding unsafe areas, not commuting or traveling alone at night, steering clear of crowded areas to avoid harassment, and escaping hostile domestic or professional surroundings. Just eight percent of respondents said they considered going to or turned to the police or women’s helplines for help.
While many of the respondents said inadequate safety and security is a major challenge, women living alone face additional challenges, such as financial hardship, healthcare issues, and emotional stress (see chart below).
The study found that elderly women who are widowed cited financial hardship and health problems as major challenges of living alone. These women found it extremely difficult to engage with service providers without any assistance to obtain basic entitlements such as a widow’s pension. For working professionals who have higher levels of education, the issue of poor levels of safety and security was the overwhelming cause for concern, mainly because of the frequency of their interactions with people and their use of public spaces.
It is surely a sign of changing times to note that of the total number of women surveyed, 48 percent reported being happy living alone, while 20 percent said they were unhappy. Those who are unhappy reported a lack of emotional support, problems associated with health, safety, career, and finances, and a lack of support from family and relatives. The rest were neutral. And, those who reported being happy about living alone attributed it to being able to face challenges and solving them, living life on their own terms and conditions, finding support from family, relatives, colleagues, friends, and the community, and being able to find better career opportunities and infrastructure facilities in Delhi.
This indicates that despite what may seem to be insurmountable circumstances and challenges, women in India are prepared to take the necessary steps to venture out of the family home in search of better education or attractive professional opportunities. It is now up to the city of Delhi to help create an environment in which this new generation of Indian women can flourish and find success. Raising awareness of these challenges is the first step. What must follow is strengthening the capacity of service providers to respond to issues faced by women living alone, and the effective implementation of the existing laws that protect and promote the safety and security for all women, with particular attention paid to those who are on their own in the city.
Diya Nag is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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