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‘Women-only’ venues proliferating in India as sexual violence grows

NEW DELHI – In the months since a gruesome gang rape riveted India, a “women-only” culture has been on the rise here, with Indians increasingly seeking out women-only buses, cabs, travel groups and hotel floors.

One city is preparing to open a women-only park. And in November, the government is launching a women-only bank it hopes will empower women financially.

In a country where reported sexual violence is increasing – despite heightened attention to the problem – many say the women-only spaces are a welcome refuge from lewd looks, groping and unwanted male attention.

The concept appeals to women across a broad spectrum of Indian society, including a 60-year-old named Sarita, who recently traveled to New Delhi from a village in Maharashtra by train and said she still had to squabble with male passengers who tried to sit next to her in the women’s coach.

“It’s the ways of men,” Sarita said. “They’re not good. How can we coexist?”

But critics argue that the trend toward separation threatens the gains that women have made in education and access to new career fields over the past two decades, as the economy has rapidly modernized. It’s the men who need to change their behavior, they argue, not women.

“It’s appalling,” said Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

“It’s a way for a patriarchal society to announce it’s not going to protect women. It’s simply going to segregate women and restrict their freedom, instead of securing it.”

“Must banks too go pink?” the headline of an editorial in the Hindu, a leading newspaper, asked recently.

Some women-only spaces – in trains, on Delhi’s Metro system – already had existed before December, when a 23-year-old physical therapy student was gang-raped and injured so severely she later died. The country’s male-dominated culture is rooted in religious customs and societal norms that date back centuries, and the sexes were long kept separate in schools and temples.

But the Dec. 16 rape and subsequent death penalty sentences for the four attackers drew intense attention to the problem of sexual violence against women in India, where reports of rape have increased more than 25 percent in recent years, statistics show.

Some women believe the harsh sentences will have little impact and feel the harassment problem is getting worse, forcing them to retreat.

After the gang rape, state governments across India scrambled to do something – anything – that would calm a public increasingly agitated about sexual violence.

They installed help lines for crime victims, more street lighting, better surveillance cameras.

But it was the idea of creating more safe places for women that really caught the attention of bureaucrats. The city of Coimbatore, in the southern part of the country, announced plans to spruce up a decrepit park and limit it to women, who would also have access to a gym with a female fitness trainer. Localities from Assam to Odisha created women-only bus lines. The ministry of tourism began pushing even small hotels to add female-only floors.

And the government announced plans for a $161 million banking system exclusively for women, the Bhartiya Mahila Bank, with a predominantly female staff and 25 branches across the country.

A spokesman for the finance ministry said the new bank is a “major step” toward correcting the gender inequity in credit and banking in India, where only 26 percent of women have a bank account, compared with 44 percent of men.

But some women’s scholars and advocates don’t believe segregating the sexes is empowering, saying it could have a negative impact in the long run.

“The attempt is to shrink women into limited spaces,” said Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi. “Women still have to come out and walk on the same streets and work in the same offices and shop in the same markets as men.” Limiting such spaces out of concern for women’s safety “is not at all a good message,” she said. “It encourages segregation and more violence.”