“Come back home within two days.” “We can’t allow you to travel alone outside the city.” “Who recommended the hotel?” “Call me once you reach the station and keep calling me every two hours from the train.” “Women from our family don’t travel alone.” “Don’t argue with the driver. What if he takes you somewhere else?” “Send your booking and ticket details.” “Don’t wear revealing dresses.”
These are just some of the concerns that women who travel in India – married and unmarried – have to hear when they say they’re heading out for a trip. Given India’s reputation for women’s has taken many well-publicised and justified hits, the anxiety isn’t unjustified. In this context, a recently-released survey “Key Indicators of Domestic Tourism in India” conducted from July 2014 to June 2015 by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) provides interesting data points about women travelling alone in India.
Despite the lack of safety and the prevalent notion that women are more vulnerable on their own, 40 per cent of all single member overnight trips in India were by women. The percentage was actually higher in rural Indian (41 per cent) and marginally lower in cities (37 per cent). Look closer at the states, and some striking statistics emerge.
Punjab has the distinction of having the most single woman travellers in all of India —66 per cent of single member trips were by women. With the exception of Karnataka, the NSSO survey revealed that women in southern states travelled extensively, which may have a lot to do with southern India being safer for women than northern India. As many as 60 per cent of all single member trips in Telangana were by women.
“Tamil Nadu (TN) is very safe and people have only gone out of the way to help,” said Aparna Karthikeyan, an independent journalist, who stays in Mumbai but frequently travels to TN for reporting work. “I have been the only woman among thousands of men in fairs, and felt nothing but safe. I don’t know about other states, but TN is gorgeous and they are only helpful. I’ve taken taxis at 1am in Chennai and not had a problem. From my experience, yes, it is definitely safe to travel alone in India.” Devika Parashar, Director, Startup Leadership Program, was a little more cautious in her assessment. “I would say southern states may not absolutely safe to travel but compared to North India, they are definitely much safer,” she said. “It’s tough to generalise but Kerala is much safer than Karnataka, I believe.”
Southern states perform much better than most states in India on several social indicators – sex ratio, mean age of marriage for females, fertility rates, among others. This suggests that cultural and social norms may have a significant role to play in how safe women feel as travellers in the region.
The NSSO survey collected the data in two ways. One, travel completed in last 365 days for holiday, medical and shopping purposes and two, travel completed in the past 30 days for business, religion, social, education and other reasons. Of trips completed in the last 365 days, 49 per cent of single member overnight trips for health reasons were by women — the most for any category — while the least was 17 per cent for shopping. How’s that for shattering a stereotype?
The big question, however, is safety. How safe is it to travel alone in India as a woman?
“Travelling along is better some times,” said Sumegha Gulati, a Delhi based journalist, who travelled to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh for medical treatment and has also gone to different parts of the country as a reporter. “I travelled to Dharamshala, stayed there for a month, spent time alone and met new people. It also allowed me to be alone, do a few stories and introspect. I have travelled to states like Jammu & Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and others, but I think UP is unsafe for overnight travel for women because the atmosphere is generally not open for women especially in small towns and small kasbas.”
Education professional Tanushree Angirish reiterated Gulati’s point about the social situation being different from region to region, and she too emphasised the importance of picking wisely. “It really depends on where one is travelling to,” said Angirish. “I only have experience of urban places and I think it’s safe to travel, given one takes certain precautions, is alert and respectful of the traditions and culture of that place. She said to her experience, people were often more helpful when they knew she was travelling alone.
In stark contrast to the numbers for medical tourism, only two per cent of single member business trips were by women.
Furthermore, only 21 per cent of the trips – 18 per cent in rural and 25 per cent in urban – for education and training purposes were by women. Only 691 females in India attend college for every 1,000 males and this ratio drops from 825 in the age group of 19 years to just 531 at 25-29 years, as an analysis by IndiaSpend had revealed.
The prevailing reputation that India has, as far as women travellers go, is far from healthy and in this context, the data offered by the NSSO survey is heartening. It seems at least a significant percentage of women travellers are undeterred by the challenges that are posed to them.