The persisting urban gender divide and its adverse effects on women, particularly the poor and those living in slums, were highlighted at a special ministerial meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Council held recently. The loud and clear message for India is that unless the gender divide is bridged, its cities will remain less inclusive and less safe and their development will be unsustainable. Women are more vulnerable in cities because of their subordinate housing rights; and they face difficulties in accessing social housing. The state normally allots social housing only to the head of the family who is invariably a man, overlooking the possibility of joint holding. (Tsunami rehabilitation housing was a progessive exception.) Determining housing rights with a male bias, as UN-Habitat studies report, also makes breaking away from violent relationships and seeking relief difficult. Further, women make up 60 to 80 per cent of the informal workforce in developing countries. The uncertain nature of their work and the small income it fetches denies them access to the formal credit system, making owning a house virtually impossible. Regular eviction of hawkers from urban spaces compounds their woes. As a result, women often suffer multiple shelter deprivations, including lack of access to safe sanitation.
Cities might appear equally accessible to men and women but in practice they are anything but that. Studies by Jagori, a non-governmental organisation, show that many women in Delhi find public transport and many public spaces traumatically unsafe. UN–Habitat's survey (Global Assessment of Women's Safety, 2009) has identified violence in public spaces as one of the three most widespread forms of violence against women. Unsafe cities shrink urban opportunities and reduce mobility for women. Cities such as Seoul faced a similar situation but responded by significantly improving women-friendly city projects. Public spaces such as streets, parks, and parking lots were evaluated through safety audits, and unsafe areas were mapped. This, in turn, helped improve the design and management of urban spaces. Such gender impact studies can be dovetailed into urban projects in India too. The UN-Habitat initiative in Jinja, Uganda, is another good practice that Indian cities could emulate. Exclusive housing projects for low-income women with a revolving fund and a credit guarantee scheme have produced heartening results. Developing gender-responsive cities is vital to the urban future and, in this respect, rising India has a great deal to learn from other countries.