Street sexual harassment can refer to any form of sexual harassment that occurs in a public place. This includes not just streets but also public transport such as buses and trains, malls, beaches, parks, restaurants and cafés, markets, bazaars, public toilets, elevators and any other place outside the home or workplace. Street harassment can affect girls and women, and to a much lesser extent, boys and men; it can occur at any time of the day or night; and it can take the form of verbal, non-verbal or physical actions that are sexually aggressive and cause physical and/or emotional harm. Street sexual harassment is euphemistically known in India as ‘eve-teasing’, which trivializes the impact that this form of violence has on victims.
The non-profit organisation Stop Street Harassment lists several offences that can be categorised as street harassment, ranging from ‘leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, gender-policing, and non-sexually explicit evaluative comments, to more insulting and threatening behaviour like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing and stalking, to actions like public masturbation, sexual touching, assault and murder’. The organisation also notes that street sexual harassment is a ‘human rights issue’, because it denies women equal access to public spaces.
Know the law
There is no national legislation addressing street sexual harassment specifically; however, the new Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, which was enacted in April 2013 to amend sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that address gender violence, has classified ‘sexual harassment’ as a punishable offence. Under the newly introduced Section 354A, ‘physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures’ and ‘a demand or request for sexual favours’ are each punishable with imprisonment up to three years, or a fine, or both. According to the same Amendment, ‘making sexually coloured remarks’ can lead to imprisonment for up to one year, or a fine, or both. These amendments, while not comprehensive, apply to many cases of street sexual harassment, providing victims new avenues for obtaining justice.
Additionally, the newly-added section 354D of the Indian Penal Code addresses stalking: ‘any man who follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman’ can be tried for stalking. If convicted, offenders can face imprisonment up to three years for a first conviction, and up to five years for repeat offences, in addition to paying a fine. However, this section also says that a case will be dismissed if the accused can prove that ‘in the particular circumstances such conduct was reasonable and justified’, thereby providing a potential loophole for perpetrators.
In addition to these amendments, offences under existing legislation, such as assault or criminal force to a woman that is intended to ‘outrage her modesty’ (under Section 354), is now punishable with imprisonment of a minimum of one year, and up to five years, in addition to a fine; previously, the maximum sentence for a Section 354 offence was two years. Offences under Section 509, which addresses any ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of any woman’, can now be punished with imprisonment up to three years, up from one year, in addition to a fine. Section 294 criminalises obscene acts and singing, reciting or uttering any ‘obscene song, ballad or words’ in a public place, and can result in imprisonment for up to three months, or a fine, or both.
While most states have enacted prohibitions against sexual harassment generally, Tamil Nadu continues to be the only state in the country with legislation targeting street harassment explicitly. The Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act was passed by the state in 1998 in response to the death of college student Sarika Shah, who died due to injuries sustained from street sexual harassment., The Act was amended in 2002.
The Act provides for life imprisonment and a fine of at least Rs. 50,000 for those convicted of intentionally causing the death of a woman by harassment. According to Section 4 of the amended Act, up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of not less than Rs. 10,000 is the penalty for ‘whoever commits or participates in or abets harassment of women’ in any place. The law also imposes a punishment of up to ten years’ imprisonment and a fine of not less than Rs. 50,000 on offenders in cases where the harassment causes the victim to commit suicide. Significantly, the Bill states that the onus of proving innocence lies on those accused of having caused or abetted the ‘harassment death’ or ‘harassment suicide’. It also provides for compensation for victims of street harassment who suffer any loss, injury, disability or mental agony, and for victims’ legal heirs.,
Many factors contribute to the vast underreporting of street harassment: perpetrators are often strangers; they can usually escape with relative ease; women are socially conditioned to stay silent about this form of abuse; and victims tend to harbor distrust towards the institutions that are meant to deliver justice.
As a result, little statistical data is available on the prevalence of street sexual harassment, and the reliability of existing data is difficult to evaluate. The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) does not collect data on street harassment specifically; it does record the number of cases filed under Section 354 (‘assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty’, referred to in pre-2012 reports as ‘molestation’) and Section 509 (‘insult to the modesty of women’ through words, gestures or acts, referred to in pre-2012 reports as ‘sexual harassment’). However, both of these sections of the IPC encompass not just street sexual harassment but also other forms of gender violence, such as workplace harassment.
Table 1, as well as Figures 1 and 2, summarize the past six years of NCRB data. Not all of the cases filed resulted in prosecutions or convictions. Furthermore, without further study it is impossible to determine whether and to what extent fluctuations in the numbers are due to actual changes in the incidence of harassment, changes in reporting practices and procedures, random variation or other unknown factors.
According to the NCRB data, the number of Section 354 cases filed increased by 56% between 2012 and 2013; the number of Section 509 cases filed increased by 37.2% during the same period. Of the Section 354 filings in 2013, Madhya Pradesh had the highest percentage of reported cases (11.67%), followed by Maharashtra (11.50%). Of the Section 509 filings for 2013, a staggering 37.35% were reported in Andhra Pradesh alone; however, this may indicate greater awareness of Section 509 or better support for victims in that state, instead of or in addition to a higher incidence of harassment. Without further data and analysis, no clear causal conclusions can be drawn from the reporting statistics. Anecdotal evidence suggests that street harassment occurs much more frequently, and to a substantially larger number of women, than indicated by reported cases.
Table 1: Sexual Harassment and Assault Cases Filed, NCRB
|Section 354 cases filed
|Section 509 cases filed
In 2009, the non-profit Jagori launched the ‘Safer Cities Free from Violence against Women and Girls’ initiative, in collaboration with the Department of Women and Child Development and UN Women. As part of this initiative, Jagori conducted a baseline survey in 2010 of over 5,000 men and women living in Delhi. Kerala-based non-profit SAKHI also contributed to this initiative, undertaking a study in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode between 2009 and 2011. SAKHI surveyed 800 women and 200 common witnesses (men and women likely to have witnessed the sexual harassment of women, owing to their proximity to public spaces) in Thiruvananthapuram and 400 women and 100 common witnesses in Kozhikode; the organization also held focus group discussions, safety audits and capacity gaps analyses.
According to Jagori’s survey, almost two-thirds of women had faced sexual harassment two to five times in the preceding year. Harassment was most commonly reported to occur on public transport and roadsides. The study also revealed that school and college students between the ages of 15 and 19 and female workers in the unorganised sector were particularly likely to be harassed; that harassment can occur at any time of the day or night, in any kind of public space, whether secluded or crowded; that almost nine out of ten respondents had witnessed incidents of sexual harassment; that bad infrastructure, poorly maintained pavements and the lack of public toilets were among the main reasons for the prevalence of street harassment; and that the burden of staying safe continues to remain upon women. An ‘overwhelmingly high percentage’ of all respondents considered sexual harassment to be the ‘most important factor that renders Delhi … unsafe’. 
The study by SAKHI reinforced many of these findings. All the women surveyed in Thiruvananthapuram said that they feared the possibility of violence in the city’s public spaces. Sexual harassment has also been reported as the main ‘safety problem’ by 98% of the women and 99% of the common witnesses surveyed. Almost 60% of women said that a ‘lack of respect’ contributed towards making them feel unsafe in public. In Kozhikode, the number reporting harassment during the day was over twice the number of those who had experienced it after dark. Only nine of the 400 women surveyed for ‘direct experience’, as opposed to those surveyed as ‘common witnesses’, reported not having faced street sexual harassment.
 Gender Violence in India: A Prajnya Report, ‘Street Sexual Harassment’, p. 9, 2010.
 ‘What Is Street Harassment?’, Stop Street Harassment, http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 See above note 2.
 See above note 2.
 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, Ch. 2(7), http://indiacode.nic.in/acts-in-pdf/132013.pdf, accessed 8th October 2014. Sec. 7 of the Act inserts Section 354A into the Indian Penal Code. Section 354A(1)(i-ii) lists the offences, and Section 354A(2) lays out sentencing rules.
 See above note 5. Section 354A(I)(iv) lists the offence, and Section 354A(3) lays out sentencing rules.
 See above note 5. Section 354D(I) defines stalking and lists the exceptions; Section 354D(II) lays out sentencing rules.
 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, Ch. 2(6). (See above note 5)
 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, Ch. 3(24)(f). (See above note 5)
 Indian Penal Code, Sec. 294(a-b), http://indiankanoon.org/doc/594493/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 Crime Review Tamil Nadu 2011, “Chapter 7: Crime Against Women”, p. 61, 2011, http://www.tnpolice.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014. Report lists ‘local laws with special provisions to safeguard women and their interests’.
 Sangameswaran, K.T., ‘Trial court verdict in Sarika Shah case upheld’, The Hindu, 15th March 2008, http://www.thehindu.com/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 Act to amend the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Eve-Teasing Act, 1998 (Act No. 59 of 2002), Sec. 6-7 (Amendments to Sec. 4 of the original Act), http://www.lawsofindia.org/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 Special correspondent, ‘Act against eve-teasing to get more teeth’, The Hindu, 31st October 2002, http://www.thehindu.com, accessed 2nd September, 2014
 ‘Chapter 5: Crime Against Women’, Crime in India 2013, NCRB, p. 389, http://ncrb.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 See above note 15.
 ‘Figures at a Glance – 2008’, Crime in India 2008, NCRB, http://ncrb.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014. Notes 17-22 refer to both Section 354 and Section 509 filings for the given year.
 ‘Figures at a Glance – 2009’, Crime in India 2009, NCRB, http://ncrb.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 ‘Figures at a Glance – 2010’, Crime in India 2010, NCRB, http://ncrb.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 ‘Figures at a Glance – 2011’, Crime in India 2011, NCRB, http://ncrb.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 ‘Figures at a Glance – 2012’, Crime in India 2012, NCRB, http://ncrb.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 ‘Figures at a Glance – 2013’, Crime in India 2013, NCRB, http://ncrb.gov.in/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 ‘Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls Initiative: Report of the Baseline Survey Delhi 2010’, Jagori & UN Women, 2011. http://jagori.org/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 ‘Are Cities in Kerala Safe for Women? Research findings of the study conducted in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode cities, Kerala 2009-11’, SAKHI Women’s Resource Centre: Thiruvananthapuram, July 2011, http://www.unwomensouthasia.org/, accessed 8th October 2014.
 ‘Safe Cities’, Jagori & UN Women, p. xii (see above note 23).
 ‘Are Cities in Kerala Safe for Women?’, SAKHI, p. 11 (see above note 24).
 ‘Are Cities in Kerala Safe for Women?’, SAKHI, p. 12 (see above note 24).
 ‘Are Cities in Kerala Safe for Women?’, SAKHI, p. 14 (see above note 24).
 ‘Are Cities in Kerala Safe for Women?’, SAKHI, p. 13 (see above note 24).
This series of posts were researched, drafted and edited by Divya Bhat, Shakthi Manickavasagam, Titiksha Pandit and Mitha Nandagopalan.