Indian residents hold placards and chant slogans as they take part in a protest against the alleged rape of a passenger by a driver working for the Uber taxi company in New Delhi on December 7, 2014.
STRDEL—AFP/Getty Images
By Mallika Dutt
December 9, 2014
Mallika Dutt is president and CEO of Breakthrough, a global human rights organization based in India.

Uber is not having a good month. As if various already swirling controversies weren’t enough, last Sunday an Uber driver in Delhi was arrested two days after allegedly picking up a 26-year-old woman who booked a ride, taking her to a secluded area, and raping her. Delhi authorities have since banned Uber for not conducting adequate background checks on their drivers and not adhering to licensing rules. They have also banned all other app-based cab service providers in Delhi.

This is commendably a swift and decisive action, especially in a city and country under high pressure and bright spotlights when it comes to such attacks on women. But banning Uber and other app-based cab services hardly means the problem is solved. In reality, it’s a quick fix—one that could even make matters worse by limiting the options available to women who already feel under siege.

According to a recent Safe Cities Delhi Programme report based on research conducted by the International Center for Research on Women, 92% of Delhi’s women have experienced some form of sexual violence in public spaces in their lifetime. This is the problem. Of course, Uber needs to improve its own operations in countless ways, starting with improved screening and background checks, and should be held accountable for the actions of its drivers. But Uber did not cause this problem. Uber is just one of the many places and spaces in which violence against women presents itself. The problem is men who sexually harass and assault women. The problem is current concepts of masculinity that lead to the impunity and tolerance underlying the epidemic of sexual harassment and rape of women in public spaces. And for this problem to be adequately addressed, the government needs to create and implement a comprehensive set of measures that has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault of women.

The quick decision to ban Uber is important in that it sends a message to all companies operating in this space that they need to follow regulations with seriousness. However, it is already unsafe for women to get around in Delhi. The metro has separate compartments for women—but what do they do when they step off the train? That’s partly why Uber and other private cab companies are in demand in the first place. Decreasing access to multiple modes of alternative transportation for women is a short-term and limited solution. Rather than further limiting the options available to women, how about increasing women’s safety not only by enforcing regulations and providing safer modes of operation, but by also increasing the number of men who hold themselves and others accountable for their behavior and actions?

That’s where we could shine a light back on Uber. Last month, when a journalist accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny,” a senior executive reportedly suggested launching a personal smear campaign against her; he also reportedly said at a party that taxi drivers are far more likely to assaulted women than Uber drivers. Those are not comments made by someone who is holding himself or his company, or his company culture, accountable. The rape in Delhi provides an opportunity for Uber, and other business owners, to step up and talk about how they will use their positions to stand for safety and equality. This is a chance for all companies to be part of the solution in making violence against women unacceptable.

We need to address sexual harassment, rape, and all forms of violence against women by demanding accountability from our institutions, our communities, and our peers. Arresting one man, banning one company in one city, and calling the problem solved is simply not enough. The government needs to provide, increase, and ensure safety measures for all transportation companies. Beyond that, the government needs to provide, increase, and ensure ways for women to move around safely in the first place.

Now let’s look at culture change and mindset. In its newest baseline measures of sexual harassment, Breakthrough, a human rights organization, reports that up to 98% of women and girls say they don’t feel completely safe in public areas[link to this report?]. This means only 2% of women feel safe at all. We need 100% of women to feel 100% safe. This will take more than banning a company or deleting an app. This will take more than the death sentence meted out to the men who raped and killed Jyothi in the now infamous Delhi gang rape two years ago. The best deterrent to sexual harassment and rape is culture change: bold, steady, and persistent challenges to the norms and biases that enable and excuse violence against women.

There is some movement in the right direction. Some 40,000 rickshaw drivers have received training on women’s safety and display stickers on their rickshaw saying, “This responsible rickshaw respects and protects women.” That’s not just a practical response; that’s a public statement for women’s rights.

And recent protests in New Delhi in support of the rape survivor show that people are taking and demanding concrete action and accountability. Indeed—especially since the Delhi gang rape—more and more men and boys have been standing with women to call for change.

We need even more. We need to dismantle the biases that blame or hold women responsible for the dangers they encounter. We need to make violence and discrimination against women socially and culturally unacceptable, in India and beyond—not just in the spectacular cases with seemingly easy solutions, but in our everyday lives, streets, and interactions. When women are truly safe, we will all get where we need to go.

Mallika Dutt is president and CEO of Breakthrough, a global human rights organization based in India and the U.S. that works to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable.


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