By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, July 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's tourism ministry has launched a campaign throughout its government's overseas offices to highlight that women are safe in India after a poll of experts ranked the nation as the most dangerous country for women.
A letter sent to Indian diplomatic missions, trade and hospitality, and tourism offices on July 6 listed a series of safety initiatives taken since the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi in December 2012 which triggered global outrage.
The letter was sent after 548 experts in women's issues surveyed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country for women, above Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
The tourism ministry said the 2012 murder had led to tougher anti-rape laws and four out of five women tourists felt safe in the country, urging all government offices to publicise these facts to address concerns people may have about visiting India.
"These efforts are showing results and the life of the average Indian woman is far improved as compared to a decade before," read the letter, a copy of which the Ministry of Tourism shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.
The letter highlighted support mechanisms, such as one-stop centres and women's helplines, that have been set up since 2012 and legal changes paving the way for tougher punishments for offences against women, including for acid attacks and stalking.
It also pointed to moves by the tourism ministry, such as a round-the-clock toll-free multilingual tourist helpline launched in 12 languages and social awareness media campaigns that highlight the importance of good behaviour towards tourists.
"The above facts may be publicised to address any queries or misapprehensions relating to the issue of security of tourists visiting India," the letter said.
The ministry dismissed the Thomson Reuters Foundation poll as "clearly inaccurate".
Experts in the poll ranked India as the most dangerous country due to the perceived high risk of sexual violence and slave labour faced by women.
Respondents were asked which of the 193 U.N. member states they thought were most dangerous for women and which country was worst in six parameters including healthcare, cultural practices, sexual and non-sexual violence and human trafficking.
"India is far ahead of many countries in most of these areas ... therefore, the ranking of India appears to be clearly inaccurate," said the letter.
"Facts clearly show that the opinion of India as the most dangerous country for women is not a reflection of reality."
The survey - that repeated a similar poll in 2011 in which India was ranked fourth - reignited debate and discussion over the safety of women, dominating newspaper and television news headlines in India in following weeks.
Government data shows reported cases of crime against women rose by 83 percent between 2007 and 2016, when there were four cases of rape reported every hour.
India's Ministry of Women and Child Development rejected the poll as an "an effort to malign the nation".
Campaigners, however, said the government needs to work on structural changes like efficient policing, strengthening the criminal justice system and increasing public representation of women, to improve India's global perception.
Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, urged lawmakers to pass a long-pending Women's Reservation Bill, which provides for one-third of seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for women.
"Perception gets created by media, by people highlighting cases and what happens in the country and by what the government is doing," she said.
"By a single stroke of pen, this government can send a very strong message to the world that we are putting our women at the highest positions in the country, that is, policy decision-making in parliament."
(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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