Sexual violence on the margins of Delhi

While debates on sexual violence in India focus on the city, the experiences of women expunged to the city's fraught, anonymous margins are all too often excluded. Content warning: this article contains description of rape and sexual violence.

Kavita Ramakrishnan
15 April 2014

In a conversation on her front stoop, Prachi tallies the number of rape and molestation cases within the block that she as a social worker has helped in reporting to the police in the past month. With weariness and disgust, Prachi tells me that only a few days earlier a three-year-old girl had been raped by her neighbor – something she says is not an infrequent occurrence. In a dramatic but telling remark that encapsulates the hopelessness she feels when seeking justice for rape survivors, Prachi claims that she would only be happy if the whole colony was destroyed.

Delhi has received much global attention from the brutal gang-rape that took place on December 16, 2012, which eventually led to the death of a young woman named Jyoti. In the aftermath, the insecurity of women in the city (and cities throughout India) emerged as a national issue with broad international exposure. Voicing their outrage, both women and men began protesting against the ineffectiveness of courts in prosecuting rape, the victim-blaming attitude prevalent amongst police and elements of wider society, and the shortcomings of city planning that made streets in Delhi unsafe, amongst other issues. Though current social and political debates on women’s safety have focused on the city as the setting for violent crimes, the experiences of women who live on the margins are often excluded from these mainstream conversations and efforts. I zoom out to the peripheries of Delhi where many of the city’s poor have been forcibly relocated due to exclusionary urban renewal and development projects. It is in these in-between spaces where women face sexual violence on an everyday basis, adding an extra layer of marginality to the already bleak lived realities.

Prachi is one such victim of urban renewal and development. She lived in an informal settlement, or basti, in Delhi near the Mahatma Gandhi memorial for over 20 years, only to be evicted in 2004 when her basti became a casualty of city-wide beautification projects. She now lives in a resettlement colony in Bawana, a semi-rural locale over 30 kilometers from her previous basti that is ‘home’ to approximately 180,000 other people, many of whom were evicted during the lead-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Most of these residents also experienced dispossession by the state, and like Prachi are currently cut-off from former employment opportunities and the tight-knit communities they once inhabited.


Bawana resettlement colony, Delhi. Lakshman Anand/Flickr.

Despite the technically ‘legal’ status of the resettlement colony, it was and remains woefully inadequate in terms of service provision and access to stable forms of work. This is ironic given that many people considered their previous bastis, though informal, to have better infrastructure – thus emblematic of how informality-formality cannot easily and directly be mapped onto illegality-legality, respectively. Even more importantly, people articulated a sense of belonging to both the city and their bastis, something that is clearly missing in narratives of the resettlement colony.

Those resettled frequently recall their arrival, which after allocation of land plots required the heavy physical and monetary investment of clearing what residents considered a ‘jungle’, and building livable houses despite the absence of proper water and sewage systems. Placed in these already hazardous circumstances, women faced added insecurities due to the lack of suitably located and adequate latrines within the colony. However, venturing out into the fields or nearby wooded areas to relieve themselves meant risking the danger of rape and sexual assault.


Bawana resettlement colony, Delhi. Lakshman Anand/Flickr.

Though the situation has improved to some degree over the past 10 years in terms of toilet services for women, many still fear the neighboring villagers, whom they consider physically and sexually aggressive. During research, I witnessed gangs of village men roaming the colony high on drugs, passing lewd comments and according to few of my female friends, looking to make aggressive advances on the colony’s women. As Seema, a woman evicted from a slum along the River Yamuna’s banks remarked, “The girls here are treated like insects, as if they have no dignity”.

While living in Delhi, women who worked held jobs in close proximity to their communities, mainly as maids in neighboring middle-class colonies. However, after being displaced, they found scant employment opportunities except for in the nearby Bawana industrial area. In addition to the long hours without breaks, constant threats of dismissal, and insufficient wages, women often confront the threat of sexual harassment and rape by factory managers and owners, which contributes further to insecurity.

But it is not just the fear of outsiders that makes the colony unsafe for women. In the cases mentioned earlier by Prachi, the assailants were neighbors of the victims. I was frequently told that the sense of conviviality people felt existed in their previous bastis had disintegrated in the resettlement colony. Communities were split up and either sent to different resettlement colonies dotting the periphery of the city, or in other cases, families were not able to procure a plot in the new settlements altogether due to the intentionally restrictive ‘eligibility’ measures enacted by the state. Considered ‘ineligible’, the latter families are untraceable, having either returned to their native villages or attempted to forge new lives in other squatter settlements in Delhi. In addition to the brutal demolition and eviction process, this community fragmentation has left deep scars on the residents, many of whom express a sense of distrust and isolation even in their own lanes, or galis.

Amidst this general fear of ‘others,’ whether in the form of the nearby villagers or the immediate colony neighbors, my interlocutors, both male and female, constantly agonize over how to protect their daughters. I found out (first and secondhand) about daughters being abducted by men both within and outside of the colony – others who may not have experienced this directly still recounted the fear of such a possibility. For instance, it became clear from multiple conversations with Prachi that she had a personal experience of ‘failing’ to protect her daughter. At the end of one conversation regarding the future of her family, she slowly brought up the subject of her daughter’s abduction a few years earlier as the reason why she wanted her married by age 18. Often, Prachi and others resorted to pulling their daughters out of school and marrying them off at an earlier age to men who live outside of the resettlement colony. Such residents felt a deep sense of ambivalence: they felt that their daughters’ futures were ultimately better-off once removed from the colony, yet they still mourned their daughters’ educational opportunities now (possibly permanently) interrupted by marriage.

Mostly rural migrants to Delhi, those who live in the resettlement colony express sadness at the stalling of what they formerly perceived as an incremental migrant journey to relative financial security in the city. Now displaced to the semi-rural periphery, people bitterly speak of Delhi’s ‘world-class’ city ambitions that mainly served to exclude the poor. Though nostalgia permeates narratives of basti life in the city, at times glossing over the hardships faced, they make a sharp contrast between the bastis of the past and the current situation. Forced eviction and resettlement have severely impacted social networks and employment linkages, which create a particularly unsafe experience for women living on the social and spatial margins. There are links between the violence of dispossession and the everyday aggressions women experience, demonstrating how different modes of violence bleed into each other. Indeed, women seem to face the brunt of displacement, adding another layer of gendered marginalization to the already precarious lived experiences in the colony.

While Delhi has been portrayed by news media and activists on a spectrum from unfriendly to dangerous in terms of safety for women, it is important to widen the discussion on gendered urban violence to the peripheries. Increasingly, resettlement colonies like Bawana are becoming the norm in housing the poor, given the rising spate of demolitions and the bid by cities across India to become ‘world-class’. This normalization brings an often invisible set of new vulnerabilities for the poor, and for poor women and young girls in particular.

For Prachi, Seema and their daughters, life in the resettlement colony seems even more precarious and dangerous than life in the city.

For more on the series go to the Cities in Conflict main page.

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