Midnight walks for India’s women to reclaim unsafe streets

NEW DELHI, 4 Feb 2023:

As the night falls, 30 odd women meet in a New Delhi neighbourhood to do something that they would never dare to on their own: walk – in order to get rid of the fear of being out alone after dusk in India’s most dangerous city.

Wearing winter clothes, sports shoes and carrying water, food and some books in their bags, the group gathers once a month in different parts of Indian capital to reclaim their right over the night.

“Women Walk at Midnight” is an initiative of activist Mallika Taneja, who began it four years ago when she wanted to take a walk at night and realised she could not do it alone.

“I only wanted company to walk, so we did some walks in which men were there too,” Taneja said, although adding later that she felt “it was logical to make it a women’s (only) walk, because in reality this is what we needed a space for women to occupy the street.”

Despite an improved security situation in the city’s residential districts in recent years, especially in the affluent South Delhi, New Delhi continues to be India’s most unsafe city for women – according to data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

In 2021, a total of 428,278 cases of crime against women were registered in the country, showing an increase of 15.3% year-on-year – with the majority of cases being related to “cruelty by husband or his relatives” (31.8%), “assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty” (20.8%), kidnapping (17.6%) and rape (7.4%).

According to the NCRB, New Delhi registered the highest number of crimes against women – 13,982 – in 2021, much higher than the second city on the list, Mumbai (5,543). The capital witnessed 2,060 attacks against women with intent to outrage their modesty, compared to 1,627 in Mumbai.

The data is in contrast to the strengthened women’s safety measures in New Delhi in recent years, after a gang-rape and murder of a young student rocked the city in December 2012 and trigger unprecedented protests.

The measures seem to have proved insufficient and women continue to avoid going out at night on their own.

In January, even Delhi Commission for Women president Swati Maliwal complained of being sexually harassed by a drunk man while she was inspecting the security levels on the street at night.

“The moment women stop worrying about whether it’s day or night, early or late, when they walk down the street, the ground reality will be overwhelming,” said Nisha, coordinator of nonprofit India Waves Women Empowerment Trust.

She said the government and the society both needed to work more to make women feel safe. “It is the responsibility of every household to address this issue more sensitively, and rather than being ignorant, we should discuss it more freely with our families.”

Creating safe spaces for women has become a priority for Taneja and her companions, who insist on finding safety in a women-only group, without requiring a man to protect them.

Mehneer, one of the participants, said the night-walk was special because she got to know how the streets of the Alaknanda neighbourhood felt at night for the first time, despite having lived their since her childhood.

“It was absolutely incredible,” she noted upon realising how alive the night was in the late hours. “I never had the courage to step out of my home after 10pm on foot, and neither did my parents allow me out of fear.”

Aishwarya, who has lived in Mumbai, explained the differences between the nightlife of the two cities, with the country’s financial hub (Mumbai) being more progressive than the conservative and patriarchal capital, partly because of migration from rural areas, where people are less educated.

She said women were able to work, travel and move more freely in Mumbai compared to Delhi, where it felt more unsafe to be out when there were “no women around you doing normal things, such as catching trains and buses, or walking.”

Therefore, “this is the safest way to walk at night,” in the company of women, she added.