‘Sensitise men to make tourists feel welcome’

By Azera Rahman, IANS

New Delhi : In a country that believes in the adage “Atithi Devo Bhavah” (a guest is like god), an increasing number of women tourists are being sexually harassed. Rights groups, lawyers and women feel the problem lies in the public mindset and things can only improve by sensitising men.

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Ranjana Kumari, chairperson of the Centre for Social Research (CSR) and president of the NGO Women Power Connect, told IANS: “The rising number of rapes, molestation and sexual harassment cases in India is projecting a bad image of the nation.

“Amid all the economic development and the hullabaloo of a surging India, these incidents are like a black mark which give the impression that we are a sexually starved country.”

The year began on a rather sour note with a New Year’s Eve bash at Kochi – in a state that projects itself as “God’s own country” – turning into a nightmare for a Swedish teenager who was molested and a number of tourists heckled.

The image of Goa, a holidaymaker’s paradise, also took a beating with at least three cases of sexual harassment of foreign tourists being reported in January.

Shock waves spread across the country and beyond when a British scribe was raped at a hotel in the popular tourist destination of Udaipur in Rajasthan. The accused, who happened to be the owner of the hotel, was later arrested.

In the holy town of Pushkar, an American woman was allegedly molested in a temple.

Alarmed by the recent spate of sexual harassment cases, India’s Tourism Minister Ambika Soni has called for a meeting Jan 24 with the tourism secretaries of various states to review projects and security plans for tourists.

Earlier this week, Women And Child Development Minister Renuka Chowdhury called for a meeting with legal experts to review the sexual molestation case of the two NRI women on New Year’s Eve in Mumbai and the rising number of sexual harassment cases in the country.

However, lawyers and human rights activists say this alarming trend is an indication of a deep-rooted problem arising from a wrong public mindset and needs more than just amendment of projects and beefing up of security.

Delhi-based criminal lawyer Rebecca John said: “It is a shame that tourists who come here for a vacation end up in a miserable state like this. Unfortunately, the mindset of men here, although it can’t be generalised, is such that they treat women as properties. A free, liberated woman is like a threat to them…there is an urgent need to sensitise the men.”

The latest crime statistics, pertaining to 2006, released by the home ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that every hour, 18 women become victims of crime. The number of rapes a day has increased nearly 700 percent since 1971 – when such cases were first recorded by the NCRB. It has grown from seven cases a day to 53.

A total of 19,348 rape cases were reported in the country in 2006, while the figure was 15,847 in 2005. And these are just the cases which have been reported. There are many which go unreported every day.

John feels that although Indian laws are quite stringent, investigating agencies and police take too long to bring criminals to book.

However, advocate Vrinda Grover disagrees.

She said: “Rape is not just a crime or sexual violence. It’s much more than that. A woman who is raped is constantly under the fear that something like that might happen to her again and if the accused is at large, her life becomes a living hell.

“In that respect I think that the law is unable to work as a deterrent. We have an archaic law, which says its not rape until there is penile penetration. Then there is no witness protection. All of this has to be changed to put a stop to this alarming trend.”

“Whether it’s the 1984 riots, Godhra violence or Nandigram, a woman’s body has always been considered as a battlefield. It’s the political parties which give the signal that rape is all right,” she said.

Grover was a part of a team of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that had gone to Nandigram in West Bengal to report on the atrocities against women in the violence-torn region.

Isabel, a British tourist who is visiting Delhi along with her friends, said: “In a city like Delhi there are still far few stares than those we get in smaller towns, but then that’s okay. After hearing about these cases we are definitely on our guard and make it a point to stick together.”

Ranjana Kumari feels it’s high time the tourism ministry took strong initiatives to prevent the harassment of tourists.

“It’s not enough to just put tilak and garland the tourist to make him or her feel welcome. They must train their staff at the tourist departments and start a campaign to sensitise the people towards this issue,” she said.