Communities’ involvement in urban planning and mixed neighbourhoods can help make our cities safe for women

How do we make our cities safer for everybody, especially women? This is a question that has become insistent and urgent at a time when assaults and attacks on women are increasingly coming to light. The December 16 rape and murder of a physiotherapist student in Delhi, the recent gang rape in Mumbai and the torture and murder of a young Dalit woman in Haryana remind us of the rising tide of violence against women in urban spaces.

Countries the world over have had to grapple with this concern. We have seen grassroots networks like the Huairou Commission and Women In Cities International (working in Latin America, Africa and Canada) that have envisioned their urban spaces as gender inclusive. In India, in contrast, metropolises are getting increasingly segmented. In both Delhi and Mumbai – purportedly world-class cities – the well-off live in privileged pockets and gated communities, while the less-privileged are relegated to under-resourced neighbourhoods, often at the fringes. Ironically, in earlier times, both cities had far more mixed neighbourhoods. Yet, if we are to go by the work that Jagori has done in recent years on making cities more secure for women, it emerges clearly that mixed city spaces make for safer cities.

Women in public spaces reported feeling safer when there were “eyes on the road”, when there were people around: vendors, shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers and others who use the streets and make a living on them. Women feel safer when they can freely use local transport and move around without any threat or fear of sexual harassment. The “sanitisation” or “beautification” of cities, where working class communities are re-located to distant sites and street vendors are taken off the roads, actually ends up making them more prone to crime and generates a feeling of insecurity. Mixed communities, mixed neighbourhoods, and mixed land use make for a greater sense of safety.

The women who are potentially the worst affected in unsafe conditions are the very ones who have no voice in deciding the contours of the city or ways to make it safer. One has often wondered why it is so hard to involve communities in planning their own living and working spaces. We know that top-down planning, no matter where it takes place in the world, is never effective. Urban design should better reflect the aspirations, imaginations and requirements of all sections of the population. Where should the public toilet be? Where should the water source be located? Which is the best site for the school?

Jagori has tried to bring in the perceptions of women and the youth into urban plans in various localities in Delhi where it has been working – many of them resettlement colonies like Bawana, Madanpur Khadar, Molarband, and others. In Madanpur Khadar, for instance, the local youth undertook a house-to-house survey as well as conducted safety audits, and highlighted the concerns that emerged through special campaigns, gender sensitisation workshops and street theatre. In this way, they could actually reclaim a park and get its surrounding walls painted. For the first time in nine years, girls who had never played collectively in public actually reported that they were cycling and taking part in games in a park that they had helped to create. Sadly, though, with no sustained follow-up by the local authorities, their efforts were laid waste and the space quickly lapsed back into a garbage dump.

In Bawana, young people filed petitions under Right to Information (RTI) Act to track expenditures on public infrastructure in their localities. A gender analysis study of the annual budget for essential services conducted by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), a Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, found huge disparities in investment in such settlements, as compared to the main city. Toilets, for instance, were not seen as important, although they were crucial to women’s safety and well-being. Simple innovations could meet the specific needs of women – pregnant women, women with disabilities, menstruating women – leading to a greater life of dignity.

Changing public attitudes on some of these issues is another huge challenge. As part of the ‘Safer Cities Initiative’, supported by UN Women and in partnership with the Delhi government’s Department of Women and Child Development, Jagori has undertaken trainings for the ‘Awaaz Uthao’ programme of the Delhi government that seeks to involve the larger community in safety and empowerment issues. Efforts are underway to set up safety guidelines for school-going girls, including good sanitation, lighting, counselling support, and awareness campaigns on the unacceptability of sexual harassment in any form. At a recent meeting of Mission Convergence – a part of this intervention – a young woman from a west Delhi colony shared how young people in her area had, after conducting safety audits, taken up local concerns.

While these indicate some stirrings, much remains to be done. What happened on December 16, 2012 in that Delhi bus held a mirror to society and forced us to reflect on the deep-seated patriarchal mindset and culture. An international community network, ‘Delhi and Beyond’ – located across 60 cities of the world – was formed, and women followed up on safety measures in their communities. At the city level, the State government set up an inter-departmental core group that meets regularly on this issue, which is chaired by the Chief Secretary of the State government. A special helpline – 181 – has also been set up in the Chief Minister’s office, and has received over 200,000 calls related to sexual harassment and stalking, a crime not even recognised earlier.

This takes us to the crux of the issue. We need to be pro-active about putting policies and infrastructure in place to bring about the desired results. (The writer is director of Jagori, the Delhi-based women’s resource centre.)

(Women's Feature Service)

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