Is Chennai really the safest city for women?

A look into the business of women's safety in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Delving into the topic of women’s safety in Chennai, here is what our reporters found.
REPORTING BY Arpan Rai, Mary Pascaline, Meghana Sanka, Pranshu Rathee, Sanjana Chakraborty, Siddhi Desai and Vivek Krishnan

CHENNAI: It all started with the 2012 Delhi rape case. A young woman was brutally gang-raped while returning home with a friend one night. It wasn’t the first time such a horrific rape had occurred in the country. Nevertheless, the media and the nation were left dumbstruck.

It’s 2016 and the city of Chennai, according to several surveys, is supposed to be one of the safest cities in India. But for all its safety and constant police patrols, especially in seedy lanes in the dead of the night, the city’s women aren’t all that comfortable.

Infographic stating a few facts on women's safety in the city of Chennai
Infographic credits: Siddhi P Desai

For starters, there are a multitude of self-defence classes and workshops that have sprung up in the city. In addition to retailers such as Health and Glow, online shopping platforms like Snapdeal and Flipkart have started stocking up on pepper sprays and even tasers.

Self-defence for women:

S Sreeram, co-ordinator and instructor of the Chennai Chapter of International Krav Maga Federation (IKMF), said that although Krav Maga has been around in Chennai since January 2009, the course saw more women participants after the 2012 Delhi rape case. But, the male to female ratio is still rather poor. “There are only two women for every ten men in my classes. I have at least 100 students all across the city and out of the 100 maybe some 15 or 20 would be women,” he says.

He conducts 90-minute workshops all over the city for corporates, students, NGOs, rural communities and more. “We provide free workshops for NGOs, orphanages and other social organizations but charge corporates,” Sreeram says. It is, after all, no easy feat to conduct more than 100 workshops a year. “The workshops are just to create awareness. To properly learn Krav Maga, people would have to enroll for our programs,” he says.

Chennai students aren’t quite reassured:

The main issue is that most students who participate in self-defence workshops feel that they aren’t too helpful. Mahila Angeline, for example, from a reputed all-girls college in the city, feels that more than self-defence classes, one would have to work towards changing the mindset of people. Many students have resorted to using pepper sprays or Swiss army knives and some use, what one might call, more innovative ways of dealing with unwanted advances from the opposite sex.

It is interesting to note that most of these products weren’t readily available prior the 2012 case. On closer inspection, it was observed that quite a few pharmacies did not understand what a pepper spray even was.

To buy or not to buy:

“You want mouth spray?” asks Selvam from Sippy Medicals in Adyar. On clarifying it was a self-defence pepper spray, he replies, “I don’t have a spray. But we do have tablets.” The answer left us fumbling for words. This is the plight of the medical stores in the city.

On the other hand, Health and Glow, a chain of stores for women care products, had a healthy stock of pepper sprays. Devi, head of the Besant Nagar branch says, “We sell 4-5 pieces every month. Sales have been consistent since the beginning. We get stock according to the demand. Hence, we get no more than 8-10 pieces a month.”

Pepper sprays available at a Health and Glow store in Adyar, Chennai
Pepper sprays available at a Health and Glow store in Adyar, Chennai Picture credits: Meghana Sanka

What the NGOs say:

“The women find themselves in unsafe situations while travelling, while standing alone for a bus, even while going to work. Even domestic violence in Tamil Nadu is reaching unknown heights.” -Dr M Shiamala Baby

Dr M Shiamala Baby, Executive Director of Forum for Women’s Rights and Development, paints a different picture of the city. “Overall I think women are not safe, both in the domestic life as well as on the streets,” she says.

Dr Shiamala Baby at work. Picture courtesy:
Dr Shiamala Baby at work.
Picture courtesy:

Baby believes that there is not enough government intervention and although the police have taken some steps, she thinks that more state intervention is required. “There are women police officers, but they are not very serious about it. Even while filing cases, the women do not seem trained to deal with the issues faced by [other] women! When women go to the police station, not only do they feel unwelcome, but they are often even accused for the crime they are victims of,” she says.

An official speaks:

J.Thamizhselvi, Sub-Inspector of the all-women police station in Adyar, disagrees. Crimes against women are not such a major problem in Chennai (when compared to other states). “The city has an above average conviction rate. The police is regular with inquiry and action,” she says.

There is also a dedicated helpline for women 1091. Women can also call on 100. The city police conduct a program wherein vulnerable bus routes are identified and undercover officers are sent to keep an eye out for any kind of eve-teasers or pick-pocketers.

“We don’t conduct any self defence workshops but instead we hold awareness workshops in schools and colleges, which covers helpline information, how to register a complaint and to make police and citizen interaction more friendly,” says Thamizhselvi.

The issue of domestic violence:

While women are comparatively safer in Chennai, domestic violence is more insidious which needs to be checked. To the Chennai police’s credit, they refuse to take the issue lightly and are doing all they can under their control to ensure the safety of women inside their own homes.

Sharmi, a family counsellor in charge of the Southern part of Chennai since 2005, observes that alcoholism is the biggest cause for domestic violence.

“We first analyse the problem and identify the various causes for domestic violence. Alcoholism is a major issue and we take husbands to de-addiction centres. It need not be the only issue, though. There could be other tensions like extramarital affairs and sexual disorders,” she says.

“My biggest satisfaction is that couples who come for counselling once, want to keep coming back. This shows that the work we are doing is working.” – Sharmi

Women at Work:

To 24-year-old Prateeksha Sethia from Hexaware Technologies, Chennai has been safe enough for her not to carry safety products with her. She liked the freedom of being able to travel alone late in the night, something which was not allowed when she was in her hometown Bhopal.

Prateeksha Sethia feels safe sharing a cab with other female colleagues in the night.
Prateeksha Sethia feels safe sharing a cab with other female colleagues in the night.

Women working at Multi National Corporations (MNCs) are subjected to odd working hours, leaving the office beyond midnight. While some women like Prateeksha resort to sharing cabs with other female colleagues, others find it fairly intimidating.

“On several instances, my seniors have overlooked the lack of safety during such hours and asked me to stay back and finish work,” says 25-year-old Anjali Thapa, a software engineer. She points out the inconsistency in the male-female ratio in several departments. “Little heed is paid to the working hours to the female employees,” she says.

Hitesh Dewani, another software engineer from the company, reveals the recruiting process for MNCs in most cities. “Out of the three departments in the company, one of them is support cell which operates in the latter half of the day till early morning. The problem with this department is that they tip-toe when it comes to recruiting females. According to them, it is difficult to explain the technicalities of the work involved,” he says.

In spite of being one of the safest cites in India, the air of apprehension still looms amidst the women of Chennai. A contradiction of confidence and caution dictate the everyday activities of these metropolitan women. Although most would like to subscribe to the belief that Chennai’s conservative culture and traditions play a role in its security, women’s safety is still a threat that makes a woman in this city hesitate before going out alone at night. Like any other imperfect city, Chennai still has a long way to go.