India is fast climbing the list of undesirable places for international women travellers. This week, Japan reiterated its warnings to female citizens travelling to India, after two allegations of rape by Japanese nationals in recent months. On Sunday, a tourist in Jaipur said a man claiming to be a tour guide raped her while dropping her off to her guesthouse. In November, six men from Kolkata allegedly kidnapped, robbed and raped a Japanese woman in Bodhgaya.

After newspapers reported the Bodhgaya incident, government-backed travel agencies in Japan and China advised women against all non-essential travel to India. One agent told India Today, “If you are female, even as a group, we advise you not to travel to India unless absolutely necessary.” On Monday, after Jaipur rape came to light, the Japanese consulate in Kolkata reiterated the warning in a circular, advising tourists in India to “be careful and behave cautiously”.

In December, the Union Minister for Tourism Mahesh Sharma announced a revamp of the India Tourism scheme. Ruing the fact that India received only 6.9 lakh visitors per year and the travel advisories that were hurting the industry, Sharma announced a new tourism action plan that would include better security arrangements. So far in India, measures taken for the safety of women residing in and visiting the country have been cosmetic and ineffective.

Spate of assaults

Before the December 2012 Delhi rape case, most reports about women’s safety in India focused on the plight of Indian women. But since then, a spate of sexual assaults against visitors to the country have been reported as well – a Swiss cyclist in Madhya Pradesh, an Irish charity worker in Kolkata, and a German teenager on a Mangalore-Chennai train, a Danish woman in Delhi

It is little wonder then that the US, UK, Canada and Australia have issued travel advisories to their citizens alerting them to what has come to be known as the “rape epidemic” in the country.

The UK government says that more than 800,000 British nationals visit India every year and most visits are trouble-free. Its latest security update from the country, however, is an alert about an autorickshaw driver assaulting a Russian woman in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. Its advice to women travellers is as follows:
“Avoid travelling alone on public transport, or in taxis or auto-rickshaws, especially at night. If you have to use a taxi get them from hotel taxi ranks and use pre-paid taxis at airports. Try to avoid hailing taxis on the street. If you’re being collected at the airport by a hotel driver make sure they have properly identified themselves before you set off.”

The US is more detailed about the travails that Americans, especially of African descent, face in India – lewd comments, groping and eve-teasing that can suddenly get physical in market places, train stations, buses, and public streets. The advisory tells women to dress conservatively and respect local customs.
“Women should observe stringent security precautions, including avoiding use of public transport after dark without the company of known and trustworthy companions, restricting evening entertainment to well-known venues, and avoiding isolated areas when alone at any time of day. Keep your hotel room number confidential and make sure hotel room doors have chains, deadlocks, and peep holes. When possible, travel around the area with groups of friends rather than alone.”

Canada flags the recent increased reporting of assault, rape and sexual aggression.
“Women should avoid travelling alone, particularly at night, on public transportation, taxis and auto-rickshaws, as well as in less populous and unlit areas, including city streets, village lanes and beaches. Dress conservatively and respect local customs.”

The Australia government recommends that travellers to India exercise a high degree of caution especially foreign women who get unwanted attention. Successful prosecutions for sexual harassment and assault are rare, it warns.
“Exercise vigilance at all times of the day, avoid walking in less populous and unlit areas, including city streets, village lanes and beaches, and take care when travelling in taxis and rickshaws. Avoid travelling alone on public transportation, autos and taxis, particularly at night.”

Many countries of the European Union advise tourists to “exercise extreme caution” and describe a security situation precarious enough to scare away most women planning to visit India for the first time.

Travel blogs, which can dispense advice but shun responsibility, are more generous in their view of India. Travel publisher Lonely Planet asks travellers to be prepared for some unpleasantness and not let it put off a beautiful experience:
“You're very unlikely to experience violent crime as a woman traveller in India; it’s sexual harassment that you may experience – more so in tourist towns and larger cities in the north of the country. Rude comments, voyeurism, and men ‘brushing against’ or groping women are all common.”

In another blog travel writer Candace Rardon says:
“While travel in India will require heightened attention and common sense, let me assure you it is worth it. Although I did encounter men who stared at me inappropriately, there were countless others who in no way treated me as a sexual object – farmers and pharmacists, shopkeepers and teachers, men whose warmth, kindness, and compassion moved me in unexpected ways.”

Meanwhile, there are no advisories or warnings for some hundreds of thousands of other visitors to India from neighbouring Nepal. The disturbing gang-rape and murder of a Nepalese woman in Rohtak isn’t the first instance sexual violence against migrants from Nepal. A 19-year-old girl working as domestic help was assaulted in South Delhi’s Mehrauli in August. In December 2012, a 20-year-old woman from Nepal was raped by three men in Mumbai.

Nepal and India have a soft border which makes it hard to count immigrants from the mountain nation. Many women in particular work in India without labor permits making it almost impossible for their governments to advise them, ensure their safety or reach them when they get into trouble.