For women who work odd hours, getting back home is a daily struggle that impinges on their safety and income, finds Zeenab Aneez

It is 7:30 in the evening, the ladies restroom at a shopping mall in Begumpet is a busy place.

Rajita, dressed in orange and blue overalls is scrubbing her hands and face with a bar of soap. After she is done, she passes the soap to her colleague Lata before she goes into one of the toilets to emerge five minutes later in a green salwar-kameez. The journey home to Alwal, by bus and then foot, will take her over 40 minutes. “I catch a bus from Greenlands but once at the bus stop, I have to walk for half a kilometre to reach home,” she says as she applies a fresh coat of powder and straightens her bindi. Even as Rajita gets ready to leave, Lata is taking a break before two more hours of work; her shift ends at 10 p.m.

“I take the bus to Secunderabad from where my husband picks me up,” she explains. What of the days when her husband is unavailable? “I don’t come to work,” she says, without a pause. Some are not lucky enough to have male escorts. Padma, who works in Banjara Hills and lives in Mehdipatnam has to walk through a dimly-lit road to reach home even after taking a bus and shared-auto.

Paratransit (autos, shared-autos and cabs) that are the only option in areas not serviced by buses, are not considered safe by most women. Only two months ago, a young software engineer was abducted and raped in a cab she took from Inorbit Mall.

For Shilpi Chatterji who works in a high end store near KBR park, the commute back home at 10 p.m. is not only about negotiating fares with auto drivers but also making a quick decision on whether the auto is safe or not. “I am careful not to take autos where the driver is accompanied by a friend,” informs Shilpi who recalls instances of getting off midway when she realised the driver was taking an unknown route.

Limited options, high cost and the constant need to look over one’s shoulder. This is what commuting in the city means to many of its women. Security guards and janitors in shopping malls, sales girls, nurses and paramedics, and everyone else who clocks odd hours at work are faced with similar dilemmas.

Will the bus be on time today? How long before I get a shared-auto? The few extra minutes could decide whether or not she gets home safely. Will there be more women in that share auto? Am I carrying enough money— stopping at an ATM could be a risk. Women who travel long distances avoid drinking water as toilets for women are unavailable or unsafe. Apart from the obvious issue of safety, a short survey conducted by Tejaswini Madabhushi and Madhumita Sinha on women employees of shopping malls in the city showed that most women spend a significant one third of their income, about Rs.5000-8000 a month, on their daily commute .

Women’s safety has become an issue of national importance following the Nirbhaya case but the approach to dealing with it has often been restricted to raising awareness and sensitising the public. However, these women’s experiences suggest the answer neither lies in just that nor in criminalising paratransit, a source of livelihood for 4-5 lakhs of people, but in addressing the gaps in the system that is failing half the city’s population. Indeed this is not only an issue of women’s safety, but also one of accessibility and mobility in our city. Although women’s access to public spaces in Indian cities has increased, their interaction with that space continues to be restrained, often only involving moving from one ‘sheltered’ space to another. For some women this may mean giving up an evening jog in the park or a late night movie but for other’s it is a difference of a day’s wages.

Data leads to action

According to Anant Mariganti of Hyderabad Urban Lab (HUL), it comes down to building a better city, starting with getting the right data. “While there is a lot of qualitative research that tells you how women interact with public spaces and the problems she faces, none of it lends itself to activism,” says Anant, who believes that hard facts and specific data are the starting points of successful intervention. “For instance, a detailed map created by HUL’s Harsha Devulapalli shows the frequency of buses and share autos in the city. Looking at the map it is easy to point out large areas in the city that don’t have access to public transport and then bring that to the attention of the relevant authorities,” he says.