By Josephine Varghese

The theme for 2018’s International Youth Day (August 12) was ‘safe spaces for youth’. As we discuss safety for young people, it is vital to remember that marginalised youth such as women, LGBTQ+ and disabled youth are more vulnerable to danger than others. As a consequence, they are generally subjected to a higher degree of control by both formal and informal institutions in society, in the name of safety.   

Scholars have argued that discourses on safety that are focussed on restrictions can be oppressive (see Corteen, 2002; Phadke 2005). They suggest that the risk of danger and consequently, safety, is often used as a mechanism to control the movement and expression of vulnerable people, for example, women. Such control acts as a serious barrier to young people’s access to opportunities for education, career growth, networking and leisure- which are all integral to their growth and development. For instance, many homes and lodgings may have formal or informal ‘curfew times’, for women and girls, which don’t apply to men and boys. In many parts of India, for instance, universities and lodgings impose curfew times before which women should be back in their accommodation. Such restrictions are non-existent or more relaxed for male university students. In recent years female students have been protesting against the sexist restrictions on their movement, citing reasons such as inability to access library facilities later in the evening, inability to organise events and network with fellow students for academic projects on campus, and an inability to access leisure activities such as cinema and music. These protests have seen varying levels of success. Recently, the High Court of Kerala ruled in favour of petitioners who sought to lift the curfew on female students, citing that such restrictions violated the fundamental rights of the female students (see Cris, 2019).

Women are locked up while rapists roam free

As early as in 1904, writer Begum Rokeya, one of the pioneers of the women's movement in India, mocked the rationale behind locking up potential victims of rape in their homes, while actual perpetrators are not punished and are free to roam through the streets (Rokeya, 1904 [2004], as cited in Phadke, 2005). Whose safety are we honouring? Effectively, women’s rights and opportunities are infringed upon to ensure the potential perpetrators remain safe.

It is true that public spaces can be unsafe for those belonging to marginal communities. Ideally, solutions to this should involve strategies to eliminate the causes of such a lack of safety and liberate vulnerable groups from such unsafety. Governments must address this issue by taking both immediate steps- such as inclusive town planning, well-lit streets, safe public transportation options and improved accessibility along with long term strategies- such as improving awareness through education and ideological change on issues such as gender, disability and sexuality. Additionally, the idea that vulnerable groups such as women should stay at home to avoid danger disregards the fact that women are more likely to face violence in their own homes than outside. 

Yet the most common solution pushed by dominant institutions in society is to enforce more  restrictions over vulnerable groups. That is, in order to minimise risk, schools, universities, families, governments and media advise marginalised people, such as women, to avoid using public spaces altogether at certain times; to avoid being present at certain places; and to avoid expressing themselves in ways that will disrupt the status-quo. 

Victim Blaming: how is it linked to discourses on safety?

Significantly, discourses on safety feed directly into narratives of victim blaming. For example, after the 2012 Delhi gang rape, certain politicians and public commentators expressed the view that the victim, Jyoti Singh, should not have been outside with her male friend after dark (see Hullinger, 2013). Similar examples of victim blaming based on discourses of safety can be seen coming from across the world. Another example for how discourses of safety can lead to victim blaming is restrictions on women’s clothing. Women are advised to dress in ways that ‘do not invite sexual violence’. This disregards the fact that sexual violence occurs as a function of power, and the fact that it happens regardless of one’s attire. 

Discourses on safety can therefore act as an effective mechanism to deny many young people of their fundamental human rights, such as the right to freedom to movement and freedom of expression. They end up absolving larger society and powerful stakeholders from taking any measures to solve the structural causes for unsafety. 

Safety is indeed a necessary condition to ensure the human rights of currently marginalised youth. It is a desirable outcome towards which concerted effort needs to be made. But we should be able to guarantee it without limiting the liberties and opportunities of vulnerable people. Safety must be conceptualised as a responsibility of societal institutions, rather than another burden on marginalised groups. Discourses of safety that hold vulnerable people responsible for the everyday violence they encounter, do not create safety. On the contrary, they maintain the status quo and perpetuate victim-blaming. We need to redefine safety so that it encourages greater engagement and opportunity for vulnerable youth.



References:

Corteen, K. (2002). Lesbian Safety Talk: Problematizing Definitions and Experiences of Violence, Sexuality and Space. Sexualities, 5(3), 259–280. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460702005003001

Cris. (2019, March 17). ‘A girl has equal freedom as a boy’: Kerala HC strikes down regressive hostel rules. The News Minute. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/girl-has-equal-freedom-boy-kerala-hc-strikes-down-regressive-hostel-rules-98474

Hullinger, J. (2013, January 9). “India's deadly gang rape: 6 troubling attempts to blame the victim”. The Week. https://theweek.com/articles/468926/indias-deadly-gang-rape-6-troubling-attempts-blame-victim

Lodhia, S. (2015). From "living corpse" to India's daughter: Exploring the social, political and legal landscape of the 2012 Delhi gang rape. Women's Studies International Forum, 50, 89. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2015.03.007

Phadke, S. (2005). You can be lonely in a crowd: The production of safety in Mumbai. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 12(1), 41-62. doi:10.1177/097152150401200102

Roychowdhury, P. (2013). "The Delhi Gang Rape": The Making of International Causes. Feminist Studies, 39(1), 282-292. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23719317