How India is battling sexual violence: gender classes for Delhi rickshaw drivers

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By Michael Safi

Five years after a notorious rape and murder, 100,000 taxi drivers are being conscripted in the fight to change traditional male mindsets

New Delhi: In the dim classroom, the low lights form a halo around Achyuta Dyansamantra as he strides back and forth before a whiteboard, intoning into the microphone like a preacher.

“If you stare at a woman for more than 14 seconds, that can land you in jail,” he tells the audience. Singing to women in public or passing lewd remarks is also banned, he says. “Whether you agree with it or not, the law is the law.”

About 100 faces stare back, many scribbling notes, some toying with their phones. These men in grey-blue safari suits are some of more than 100,000 commercial drivers who operate taxis and rickshaws in the teeming Indian capital, Delhi.

Since a gang rape and murder five years ago incensed the nation, such “gender sensitisation” classes have become mandatory to renew commercial driving licences in the city.

As the anniversary of the death of physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh approaches, advocates for Indian women say these classes are helping to change a patriarchal culture, one that has proved more stubborn to reform than the country’s laws against sexual harassment and assault.

One thickly-bearded and turbaned driver has been raising his hand patiently during the class. “Generally, all the rape happens in India and not in foreign countries,” he says when finally called on. “Why is that so?” The man answers himself before Dyansamantra can speak. “In this country, if you want to have sex, you cannot do so – that’s why there is rape,” he says.

Dyansamantra frowns. “We will discuss this later on,” he says. (Delhi does have a red-light district, he adds.)

The city’s army of rickshaw and taxi drivers pose no particular threat to women. As in other cities, sexual violence in the capital is most frequently committed by men known to their victims. “If drivers were a problem, the Delhi transport system would have come to a stop,” says Rutika Sharma, a social worker who helps run the schemes, developed by the Delhi-based Manas Foundation, a mental health group.

But as growing numbers of women venture out to work and simply live their lives, they are coming into more frequent contact with commercial drivers – some from backgrounds where the idea of an independent woman is still relatively new. “We are trying to explain things in 40 minutes or one hour, that they have been seeing for 40 years,” Sharma says.

Changing regressive mindsets is the aim of the class. “Clothing is a major argument,” Sharma says. “Some drivers say fashion – what the girls are wearing – is not Indian culture. They say we are copying other countries.” Inevitably, some raise this kind of clothing as a contributing factor to sexual harassment or assault. “We tell them rape cases are increasing with girls aged six months or two years old,” says Dyansamantra. “Or we show them stories of an 82-year-old lady being raped by some man. We ask the drivers: what was she wearing? And they realise – everything is a mindset.”

Women drinking is also a big issue, says Sharma, especially in Hauz Khas Village, a south Delhi neighbourhood of bars and restaurants. “If a girl goes to Hauz Khas, she is a not a good girl. It’s a bad place, where a girl cannot go. That is their mindset,” she says.

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