As a solo woman traveler from India, I often get this question of how safe is India for women travelers. Here I’m attempting to answer all those questions based on my experience of full time traveling in India for years, almost always alone.
India’s shady reputation when it comes to women’s safety is not the work of media alone, it comes from a multitude of surveys from credible sources like Thomas Reuters, India’s own national records bureau, and the personal experiences of women. While the official statistics are detailed out primarily for local women, it does mention that 409 foreigners filed cases in 2019, 55 of which were for rape, assault, and kidnapping. But these numbers fail to capture the everyday harassment all women face here that is largely normalized as ‘eve-teasing’.
Data on crime against women in India:
National crime record bureau of India published the statistics for 2019 for the crime against women as follows:
- 405,861* cases of crime against women were registered (that equals 62.4 per million)
- 88,367 of these cases were assault on women with the intent to outrage her modesty
- 105,037 of these cases were of kidnapping and abduction
- 32,033 of these cases were of rape (That’s one every 16 minutes)
- 3944 of these were registered as an attempt to rape
- India ranked in the bottom 20% in the gender inequality index in 2017
- India was rated as the world’s most dangerous country for women by Thomas Reuters’s perception poll in 2018 among 192 countries (India stood at number 4 in the same poll in 2011)
*These are the number of registered cases, the number of victims is more than this.
These numbers may look big to some and small to some esp. in the context of the crime rate per million. However, this should be seen in the cultural and legal context of India.
India does not recognize marital rape as criminal and the definition of rape itself was expanded only in February 2013 to include other acts of violence in the definition (This definition earlier was limited to penetration).
A poll conducted in 2017 revealed that 70% of Indian women are afraid to register sexual harassment complaints, a reason being lack of confidence in the justice mechanism.
Culturally, India is a predominantly patriarchal country making it difficult for women to find their voice, be heard, and seek justice. Victim blaming is rampant and the painfully slow judicial system doesn’t help either. To give you an example, the 2012 Delhi rape case that had caught not only the nation’s attention but also worldwide media’s got closure only Seven years later. This was a case that was dealt with in a special manner with fast track courts in place, now think of a case from a middle-class person where no one died.
Data on crime against foreigners in India:
The detailed official report provided by NCRB is available here. It lacks the detailing like gender and crime rate owing to the absence of overall tourist numbers.
- 409 cases (517 victims) were registered of crime against foreigners
- 55 of these cases were – rape (12), abduction (5), insult/assault on women (27), and human trafficking (11).
As with the above data, this too should be taken with a pinch of salt. Being aware of the systems that exist in India, I can only imagine how difficult it would be for a foreigner to get a complaint registered.
Are things any different in India compared to other parts of the world
This is a question I guess every Indian esp. women must have received from their female friends outside India who are curious to see the country but with a population of 1.3 billion is it even possible to give one answer? There is nothing that is common across the country – no language, color, clothes, culture, nothing.
Like in any other country some parts of India are more dangerous than the other or say some are safer than the other. Then where do all these insecurities about traveling in India come from? Some would say the Media’s portrayal of the country. But that’s not the complete truth. India in my experience is a country where the likelihood of a woman getting sexually harassed is way more than any other country I have traveled to. It is sad when people try to underplay the safety situation in India as it can put someone’s life in real danger. The mental trauma that comes with street harassment is unfathomable by someone who has not experienced it.
What kind of harassment do women face in India?
There is little detailing of the data available on foreigners like gender-related crimes etc. And with an understanding of the system, I would fail my readers if I only stuck to that. Most of the everyday sexual harassment cases go unreported in India. Some very common ones – groping, pinching, Masturbating in Public, passing disgusting remarks on the streets, so on and so forth. I have faced all of these more than once and I personally don’t know any woman who hasn’t faced at least one of these. From what I gather, most women across the world have faced sexual harassment in some form or the other so what is the fuss again?
- The probability of it happening in India
- The frequency with which it happens
- The situations where it can happen
I have met women from various countries who tell me how they have been harassed in clubs in countries conventionally considered safe. Now, the difference is, you can go to a busy club, get drunk, get back home by yourself, and expect everything to be fine. I don’t know very many Indian women who would even consider going to a club alone which is jam-packed with Indian men and go back home alone drunk. That is a recipe for disaster here.
Situations to avoid while in India:
I understand how difficult it could be to avoid these situations for someone on a budget and in that case, my recommendation would be to just be hyper-alert.
- Public transport like a tuktuk shared with strangers (Manspreading is painfully common)
- Any local transport with a high percentage of men like Mumbai locals or Delhi Metro. There are ladies compartment in these trains for safety reasons
- Exhibitions with free entry
- Sitting next to a man on a bus
- Crowded dance floors
Basically, anywhere a man can get away with it. It’s no brainer that women with higher budgets are taking lesser risks in terms of personal safety. So, the next time someone tells you ‘India is completely safe for women travelers’, do ask them if they ever took public transport alone other than an upper-class train ride or a sleeper bus.
Do I still recommend India to travel as a solo woman?
Yes. But of course, it’s you who has to decide.
Although I would say if you have a choice to travel with a male partner then do that. It would make your life much simpler. But don’t let lack of company be a reason to put it down.
India is a blast of cultures, colors, beautiful places, delicious food, and a lot more. Indians are the most hospitable bunch of people you would ever meet. Above everything, it is backpackers’ heaven. There are things to serve every budget. It might not be the cleanest but at least there are options.
- There are buses, trains, budget airlines to travel with
- Hostel culture is really picking up everywhere so there are budget places to stay
- Street food is the absolute best in India and is as cheap as Rs. 50 for a meal (less than a dollar)
The one thing that you would have to compromise on would be your freedom. You would have to watch your step, be alert to your surroundings at all times.
Pro Tip: Get a local SIM card in India, it’s cheap and readily available for 30-90 days validity. If you find yourself in harms way, dial 100. 100 is the national number for police.
Also read - Chittorgarh Fort | Rani Padmavati’s Palace
Tips to travel more safely in India as a woman:
In some places, there is a big selfie culture which is a random person/people would come up to you and ask for selfies. There are three broad ways to deal with it
- Agree with it and tirelessly pose for pictures. Remember when one person gets a selfie a lot more would find the courage to come up to you and ask for a picture as well
- Politely decline
- Very creative way – ask for money in return for a picture. I know someone who did that and earned some money. They charged Rs. 100 for each picture.
Note: Even if you’re agreeing to get pictures do make sure you ask them to maintain distance. I know of a woman who was groped and molested by strangers on the pretext of getting a picture.
- Carry a scarf around your neck. Cleavage can attract a lot of attention.
- Cover yourself in a sarong as soon as you get out of the ocean.
- Sleeveless is fine
- A wedding ring means nothing to most Indians. Toe rings, however, mean you’re definitely married. So if you want to travel around like a married woman then toe rings are the way to go. I did meet a woman who was traveling like that but it didn’t help her much.
- Get a picture of the number plate if you’re getting into a regular vehicle
- Be on the phone when getting inside your uber or Ola so they know there’s someone who knows your whereabouts
- If the driver wants to pick up a friend along the way, say NO Ted Bundy.
- If you take a long-distance bus, either book a single seat or book one reserved for women (Redbus website shows the women’s seat in red)
- Carry your bag on the front. Not only does it save it from pickpockets but also saves one from being groped
Couchsurfing in India:
- Try to couchsurf with only women or families (I have met women who were treated poorly by couchsurfers with over 100 references too)
- If you’re attending a Couchsurfing event, be prepared to be the minuscule women population in the group.
General (I follow these in any country I travel to):
- Try to reach back at your residence before sunset
- If you’re going out late in the evening, try to go out with male companions
- Don’t walk back alone when drunk even if the hostel is a block away
Pro Tip: It can be tempting to go for the cheapest option for a budget traveler but just spending a little more money on transport alone can reduce the risk of an unpleasant experience.
Also read - 13 Tips for First Time travel to India
Your responsibility as a traveler in India:
As an Indian woman, I’m absolutely, beyond frustrated with the whitewashing of the entire issue by some female travelers. Sure all countries are dangerous for women, all countries have pockets to avoid but how many countries have you really been to where you could get groped in full daylight while being a step away from your male partner?
A few months ago, I hosted a friend of mine (European)I had met while traveling. We debated on how our experiences of traveling in India have been as a woman and concluded that it probably was safer for tourists than the local women (numbers corroborate the same story). Not too long after arguing with me about how safe she felt while traveling in India, she went on to tell me how a stranger had barged into her guest house in Pondicherry, waking her up when he tried to get in bed with her in the middle of the night. This was her first day in India.
It should be criminal to share only positive experiences of traveling in a country where your first day was as horrid as this.
While researching for this article, I came across another version from a traveler of how India was completely non-threatening, and this was used in the same sentence as the writer talking about being groped twice and stalked multiple times. Seriously? What kind of dubious little world are you living in that makes you think this is acceptable? If you say this, you’re very much part of the problem that India faces today of the normalization of sexual harassment. You’re not only undermining the experiences of several women who share bad experiences but also threatening the lives of women who would probably take a call to travel to India based on your stupid advice.
My humble suggestion to anyone sharing their experience of traveling in India is to furnish details like what was your budget like? did you travel in a private vehicle all the time, flying between cities? Did you face any kind of harassment (from stalking to touching)? Please let other women decide what they count as threatening and what they don’t.
You are one flight away from the safety of your home country, something Indian women don’t have. Do you think what you’ve experienced in India is acceptable on an everyday basis? If not, then how do you think things would change? Would any government ever want to change things if they only see predominantly good experiences being shared online? Please feel free to share your honest experiences. If it’s good, excellent. But if you’re choosing to only talk about the good leaving aside the bad ones, that’s plain terrible.
The idea of this post is not to spread fear about the country but to make travelers aware of what threats are lurking in the corner here. I don’t know any better way to do that.
Have you ever traveled to India? How was your experience?