Business

Making women safe at work in India

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Media captionAfter the India rape tragedy, Shilpa Kannan looks at safety in the workplace

The death of a 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped and thrown from a bus in Delhi has shocked India and made headlines around the world.

It's sparked a fierce debate nationwide about the treatment of women, as a number of reports rank India as one of the worst countries in the world to be female.

But a generation of newly-empowered young women are going out to work in larger numbers than ever before, so just how safe do women in the capital feel?

Busy street

At the Munirka bus stop where the young medical student and her friend boarded a bus on the night of 16 December, women say they fear getting into buses.

But buses are one of the cheapest modes of transport so many don't really have a choice.

While this spot has become one of the focal points in the city while talking about women's safety, the irony is that it's not a remote area of Delhi.

It's one of the busiest streets in prime south Delhi and has traffic day and night.

Image caption Indian women are turning to martial arts to protect themselves

Hundreds of women use this place every day - to get to work and back.

But some like Sweeti Dagar are learning self-defence skills. In a basement martial arts centre, she practices her kicks and punches on a male colleague.

She lives in Najabgarh on the outskirts of Delhi and spends nearly two hours every day on public transport to get to university and back.

The petite 21-year-old says she wants to be strong to be able to protect herself out on the streets.

"I think it's important to learn martial arts - all women should. It's not safe out there. When in danger, we can't wait for our brothers or fathers to protect us."

With crime rates against women increasing in India's cities, some industries are investing to protect their workers and encourage more women to join them - like the IT and outsourcing sector.

After yet another horrific rape and murder of a 24-year-old woman employee of Hewlett-Packard in Bangalore, a strict code of conduct was put in place to protect workers.

Helplines

Nasscom, the industry body that represents Indian technology companies, says women form more than a third of its workforce.

Image caption The gang-rape on a Delhi bus has sparked national outrage

Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice-president at Nasscom, says this higher percentage of female participation is because "the industry has a complete mechanism internally to ensure we have helplines to provide all the safety-security of women - particularly in transportation and safety".

The measures include:

  • Providing company transport to and from the workplace
  • Ensuring that the women employee is not the first to be picked up and not the last to be dropped
  • Installing GPS tracking systems in all cabs
  • Companies doing background checks all security guards and drivers including maintaining records of fingerprints and photographs
  • Companies providing their database of drivers to Nasscom and they in turn give that to the police.

'Risk'

All this comes at a cost, which Ms Gupta says companies operating in markets like the Philippines don't have to incur.

"In the Philippines, even if a shift ends late in the night, workers take cabs and don't feel unsafe," she says.

"Whereas here in India, we cant take that risk. While it's an added cost, its something companies take into consideration as we want more women to work for us."

Image caption There is an added cost for firms to protect their female workers

But for small businesses, it's a lot harder to invest in security.

It's a question that employers are considering before hiring women.

With outlets across the country, Speciality Restaurants employs hundreds of women.

But the owner says that in Delhi he hires more men as he is worried for the safety of female employees.

"I have restaurants in 26 cities in India but Delhi is what concerns me the most," says the firm's MD Anjan Chatterjee,

"I hire more women everywhere else. But here it's a different story. I'm from Delhi and I know first-hand how the environment here is. I don't think I can have women workers - especially as they will need to work late hours."

'Nasty stuff'

Even so, he arms all his women workers with pepper sprays.

At his Chinese restaurant in south Delhi, one of the employees sprays a little at the floor to show me its efficacy.

Soon the entire floor has men coughing and sneezing - it's pretty nasty stuff. But more and more women on the streets now own one.

Chemists in every locality have signs now advertising that they sell pepper-sprays - mostly sourced from China.

Many feel that it'll take more than just pepper-spray to make India's women feel more secure.

But while the country is debating the issue, there is now more pressure on employers to ensure the safety of their workforce.

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