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Can the Ladies' Express put women on track to equality?

March 1st, 2010
03:28 PM ET

Palwal, India - Faced with growing complaints of sexual harassment on its crowded commuter train network, India has launched a new women-only service - but when the Ladies' Special chugged out of the station last Saturday, it had two men on board.

Myself and a cameraman, Rajesh, were accompanying CNN's Mallika Kapur to report on the twice-a-day shuttle carrying female workers to New Delhi from Palwal, a small town in a neighboring state.

For eyes accustomed to seeing passengers hanging out of the country's notoriously overcrowded short-distance trains, this service appeared odd at first.

I hardly saw any woman getting into it at least until 20 minutes before its scheduled departure from Palwal - a state of affairs that drew dismissive comments from men taking a train on an adjacent track.

"There isn't a significant number of passengers on the Ladies' Special. Still, it gets priority in departures and arrivals while other trains suffer delays," said Kishan Singh, a 61-year-old man heading for his printing press in New Delhi. "It should be made a general train with a couple of coaches reserved for women."

Another male traveler, Mukesh Sharma, had the same opinion. "This Ladies' Special is of no use. It's wastage of resources," he said.

Initially, we had feared that reporting on the Ladies' Special on a Saturday was a mistake, a government holiday in India, but then I saw other trains leaving Palwal - packed like sardines.

Jumping on to the bright blue and yellow striped train, we showed a copy of our official permission to the guards before passing into the carriages through rows of cushioned seats with steel luggage racks overhead.

Pink and red powder was strewn on the aisle, a sign passengers had celebrated an upcoming the Hindu festival of colors –- Holi - on board a day ago.

There were now more than two dozen women on board, some having breakfast and some reading from their pocket prayer books.

As the Ladies' Special rolled out of Palwal, I introduced myself to a group of rural passengers chatting together. Their eyes blazed with excitement. One of them began singing a Holi song. Others clapped along and joined in the chorus.

By the time, Rajesh and Mallika arrived at their seats, they were swaying in time to the music.

Rattling through one station after another, the Ladies' Special began filling with passengers. It was now a glimpse of India's womenfolk –- rural and urban, conventional and modern –- under one mobile roof.

For many passengers in their early 20s, the train was a comfortable place to put their face make-up on or comb their hair without attracting leers.

"No doubt, this train has made our lives easier," said Shweta Saxena, a young woman on her way to her office in New Delhi. "We just don't have to face the trouble that we encountered earlier traveling on mixed trains and buses."

India is recording a rise in the incidence of male harassment towards women as the female workforce swells in Asia’s third largest economy.

Police across the country registered 185,312 cases of crimes against women in 2007 from 140,601 in 2003. More than 38,000 complaints were registered for molestation in 2007 alone, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

The country has enacted stringent laws aimed at safeguarding women from groping, catcalling, sexual assaults, workplace exploitation to murders of brides for dowry, a practice outlawed but prevalent in Indian families.

Nonetheless, women also hold some key seats of power in the South Asian nation. Indian president Pratibha Devisingh Patil is a woman; the country’s ruling Congress party is headed by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. India’s leader of opposition and speaker of the lower house of federal parliament are also women.

Sex-segregated transportation is not new in India. Women-only buses ran in select cities when government jobs were the most sought-after employment for both sexes much before the country unleashed economic reforms in the 1990s.

The trains are relatively new. Last year, authorities introduced the all-women service connecting Palwal and New Delhi modeled after a similar service in the country’s financial capital of Mumbai. Two other metro cities, Kolkata and Chennai, also got their own Ladies' Specials in 2009.

"Earlier, even if we were traveling in reserved compartments (for women), male passengers would barge in. But it is much safer now. Security is tight and no man dares to step into the Ladies' Special," said Teesha Sharma.

Four female and two male officers patrolled the train all through its route.

Railway inspectors were tough with travelers attempting a free ride. They fined at least two passengers about $5 each for not buying their two-cent tickets.

"If we see any man traveling in this train, we just catch hold of him and de-train him at the very next station," said Tayyab Hussain, a railway guard.

I saw guards declining entry to some men trying to board our Ladies' Special.

"You can travel on it with peace of mind," remarked Neha Dudeja with a smile as she prepared to get down at her destination.

What do you think? Are women-only trains a good idea? Are they needed in your community? Do they help or hinder the battle for sexual equality?

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