ADAM ESCLAMADO WRITES – One would not think of a humble safety pin as a tool for self-defense; yet a movement in India has thousands of women on social media platforms claiming to have utilized the pins to ward off attackers. Originally intended to keep together bits of clothing, the pins are now used as weapons of mass destruction in the war against sexual harassment.

Such harassment has long been a problem in India– in public spaces, workplaces, and even in the comfort of women’s own homes.

In 2013, the Indian government passed the Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment Act (POSH) to curtail the abuse of women in the workplace, making it mandatory for employers to provide a safe and secure work environment for female employees. Still, the Act continues to have serious limitations. For example, it applies to only formal workplaces with ten or more employees, which leaves some domestic and agricultural workers unprotected. The Act further limits the definition of a workplace, as it does not include work-related travel, where harassment commonly occurs. Additionally, POSH does not provide clear regulations to protect witnesses or others who come forth during investigations. Overall, while the government has taken legal measures to prevent aggressive attacks and to promote awareness of the dangers of harassment, many women are still left feeling vulnerable.

All too many women tell stories of predators taking advantage of them, whether on buses, rubbing against them, or on the way back from the store while enduring a cacophony of catcalls. Though these stories may seem shocking or irksome, they aren’t rare.

The problem is widespread in India. According to a 2021 survey, 140 cities reported that 56% of women claim to have been sexually harassed, but only 2% took their cases to the police. Most of the time, instead, they took matters into their own hands, grabbing whatever they could to hit back assailants. Or they chose to simply ignore things and move on, not wanting to cause a scene and escalate the situation.

But not everyone carries or has access to self-defense tools such as pepper spray, tasers or emergency whistles. Some use umbrellas or shoes or keep their nails long to use them in case of defensive need.

So now, safety pins have become a symbol of solidarity and support for victims of sexual harassment. In truth, the safety pin, invented in 1849, is an effective tool because it can be discreetly hidden within clothing or, if visible, it can serve as a signal to others that dangerous behaviors are happening. (Ironically, the safety pin movement initially gained popularity in the U.S. in 2016 after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, suggesting the truly global spread of issues raised in America.)

These tiny homegrown remedies, such as safety pins, though, are hardly substitutes for legislation that would increase accountability on the part of harassers. Government must do more, such as: conduct workplace inspections; sanction employees who fail to adhere to the standards of POSH; expand the protection of so-called informal laborers, such as domestic and agricultural workers; increase penalties for transgressions; and encourage and simplify reporting procedures in order to help eliminate the stigma of retribution.

Until these advancements are accomplished, millions of Indian women will be left hanging onto mere threads … or safety pins … to feel secure.

Adam Esclamado

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