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Uber Rape Case Reignites Debate over Women’s Security in India

December 17, 2014

By Reecha Upadhyay

On Friday evening, December 5, a young woman, just finishing work in Gurgaon, India (a satellite city which is part of the larger National Capital Region), goes to meet her friends at a pub in South Delhi, and decides to call an Uber home. This chain of events is typical of what many young professionals in India’s capital city do on multiple nights every week. But what follows is where everything breaks down. While riding in the Uber on her way home, the woman dozes off. When she wakes up, the driver has gotten off route, shutting off his iPhone, which is equipped with a GPS system, before he sexually assaults her. The victim reported that during the assault, he reminded her of the brutal Dec.16, 2012, rape case of another young woman in South Delhi, and threatened further abuse if she screamed or resisted.

While protesters continue to hit the streets this week demanding greater accountability and action from the city government on gender-based violence, the incident underscores the fact that hundreds of thousands of women in Delhi are as vulnerable as they ever were. But what has changed is that, despite the horrendous ordeal this young woman went through, she still had the courage to take a photograph of the car she was in and most importantly, to report the crime to the police.

Once the crime was reported, the Delhi police force was swift in finding the perpetrator and even faster in deflecting the blame for this incident, demanding that Uber suspend its services. The media was also fast on the scene, and news of someone getting assaulted in an Uber spread like wildfire among Delhi urbanites.

The incident has since ignited a much-needed debate both in India and globally over where accountability and responsibility lie when it comes to safety. On the one hand, Uber provides many young women in a city like Delhi with more independence and mobility and easier access to every-day services like transportation. App-based cab services have removed the need to go out on the road and hail an auto rickshaw or walk to the nearest cabstand, where women are more vulnerable and more likely to be judged on how they look. Uber gave women (those able to afford the service, at least) the freedom from their drivers (if they have one) or their fathers/boyfriends/husbands/male friends to pick them up. It allowed young women the same agency as anyone else to negotiate the city on their own terms.

Taxi in Delhi

In 2013 there were 1,441 cases of rape in Delhi, making it the highest number of reported rape cases in the country. Women’s mobility remains restricted, street lights in many parts of the city still do not work, public transportation remains hostile for women to access. Photo/Flickr user Rohit Rath

However, what is still being debated after this incident is who is at fault. Yes, the perpetrator is guilty of this crime, but could this incident have been avoided if there had been better systems in place? Could Uber have done a better job conducting background checks? What is the responsibility of the police who did not go beyond their immediate jurisdiction when they conducted the background check prior to Uber hiring the driver to realize that this particular perpetrator had multiple sexual assault charges in the past? And is banning all app-based cab services really the solution to end rape and sexual assault in a city like Delhi?

Answers to these questions remain unclear, but what is clear is that there is a greater need for institutional change to truly address gender-based violence. According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), in 2013 there were 1,441 cases of rape in Delhi, making it the highest number of reported rape cases in the country. In order to move toward creating a safer city, the Delhi government needs to do much more. Women’s mobility remains restricted, street lights in many parts of the city still do not work, public transportation remains hostile for women to access – each of these infrastructural and policy prerogatives must be designed and implemented by keeping women’s safety as an utmost priority, and not as an after-thought.

As India rapidly urbanizes, and as technology governs so much of urban life, how we use technology also needs to be looked at more closely. The Asia Foundation recently began supporting an innovative safety app for women called SafetiPin, which allows users to conduct safety audits in their cities. The safety audits allow the users to see how others have rated a particular neighborhood or a street. Users rate safety based on key parameters like working street lights, presence of security/police, presence of men or women on the street, and if the individual feels safe. This information is collated by SafetiPin then fed back to the appropriate government agencies to advocate for better infrastructure and policy change. An initiative like this can be even more effective if the city government takes ownership and uses it to influence policy and infrastructure development (read more about how Safetipin is doing this in Bogota, Colombia).

The move to ban services such as Uber is a distraction from finding real solutions to the core issues that keep women unsafe in their cities. There remains a governance deficit in India when it comes to safety for women – both in the private and the public domain. Better coordination and information-sharing among the police, and more rigorous processes for background checks by private companies, could have stopped this perpetrator from getting hired and possibly have prevented yet another young woman from going through this horrific experience.

Reecha Upadhyay is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s India office. She can be reached at reecha.upadhyay@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this fair and balanced presentation of this issue. The way that much of the media is sensationalizing this issue to place the blame completely on Uber doesn’t help anyone. Uber has done more good than harm when it comes to advancing safety for women.

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