Guests speak - Dr. Kalpana Vishwanath

Designation : Co-founder

Organisation : SafetiPin

Cities as sites of production and consumption are gendered in their very imagination. They are not neutral spaces and have often been planned and designed keeping in the mind the ‘male worker citizen’. The gendered nature of cities and urbanisation manifests itself in the exclusions, lack of opportunities, kinds of infrastructure and services which impact women’s access and mobility. Gurugram which used to have a population of around 8 lakhs a decade ago is now a city with over 1.5 million residents. While the number of buildings and offices have grown, there has not been a similar growth in the provision of services and in many respects the city is severely underserviced.

Research has shown that many factors play a role in determining women’s access to the city including urban design and planning, community involvement, improved policing, usage of space etc.  For example, use of spaces for a diversity of purposes is often more conducive to the production of safety. Planners and sociologists argue that this diversity ensures that different kinds of people use the space and that it is used through all times of the day. Jane Jacobs (1960) states that the problem of insecurity cannot be solved by getting people off the streets and instead we need to ensure “eyes on the street” as the solution to lack of safety. She advocates for diversity in the use of public spaces as a way to ensure that there are at all times different sets of users of a space thereby ensuring a level of safety and comfort.

Creating safety involves much more than just responding to violence. It is important to create the conditions by which women are able to move about safely and without fear of violence or assault. Fear often plays a key role in women’s experience and access to the city. Delhi and NCR (including Gurugram) are considered unsafe which has been heightened by recent cases. Several cases including the ones near and around the malls have highlighted this vulnerability. Therefore in order to create greater levels of safety and comfort, both actual violence and the fear of violence need to be addressed. In addition to improved policing and services, campaigns which spread the message about safety and its importance can go a long way in addressing the fear.

In a few safety audits that were conducted in Gurugram,  it was found that women and children used well-lit parks and markets, or were present in the inner colony streets. They were also present in larger numbers on well-lit streets with a large numbers of shops or vendors. Thus improving women’s experience would entail having streets that are well lit and usable, easily available and good public transport and public spaces that promote usage. It would also include a responsive police system and service providers.

Good  lighting emerges as an important factor in determining the safety of a space. Thus spaces that were well lit were used more by women. Similarly lighting in residential areas ensured more safety for women. Urban spaces are very different during the day and after it turns dark. Infrastructure such as lighting, pavements, state of roads, parks, trees etc can affect whether a space is seen as safer by and for women to use. Similarly the nature of usage of the space also has a role to play in creating conditions of safety. Thus liquor shops which often have men milling around in larger numbers can make that space less comfortable or safe for women. In Gurugram, you probably encounter a liquor shop at almost every kilometre. Further, some of these shops also have an attached area for drinking.

On the other hand, the presence of regular and familiar shops and vendors can create a feeling of safety for women who use the space. Women reported feeling safe to move around after dark because of the presence of familiar vendors selling vegetables and other household items, the dhobi and others who are regularly present till late in the evening. A active street life contributes to an urban culture which is vibrant. Streets are not only meant for cars to whizz past, but also as spaces for interaction and engagement.

A city is a space which is occupied by a diversity of people and this must be nurtured and promoted. Cultural and socio-economic diversity have always been a feature of our cities. Gurugram also needs to embrace this rather than create islands of exclusion and privilege. While people in gated communities are often concerned about the safety of women living within, it is also important to ensure the safety of women who come in to work such as domestic workers. Unless the city is envisaged as a collective space for a diversity of people including the people in the villages, in the industrial area, working in homes, using public transport, walking and cycling, it will only be a collection of buildings and not a city.

Caring cities need to create spaces for all and the problem of inclusion must be addressed through policies and structural changes. Till very recently, the issue of women’s ‘safety’ or ‘inclusion’ in a city was not seen as a problem of the city but rather a problem that needed to be dealt with at the individual level. It is high time to move away from this perspective to one of collective responsibility.

A key strategy to creating safer cities must involve communities in the process. Thus while improved police response is important, it is also necessary to have vigilance at the neighbourhood and community levels. If residents take more responsibility and respond to concerns of women and girls, it would be possible to build up local level mechanisms to address this. For example, in the recent months, we have heard about cases of violence and abuse both within the home and in schools. A strong support system within neighbourhoods and communities can be a powerful force to ensure that such cases are not able to continue with impunity. We have seen over the past few years that many Gurugram residents are interested and willing to create forums to respond to social issues and these can have an impact on reducing the acceptance of insecurity as a way of life. Local groups such as RWA’s or NGO’s can play a role in creating supportive structures for women and children who face violence or abuse. We know that there is a lot of silence surrounding these issues. Schools especially are spaces where we can build this understanding and knowledge from an early stage.

Public transport is a common good that needs to be provided in any city. Gurugram’s track record on this has been dismal. Till a few years ago, there were no autos, almost no buses and the only options was the cycle rickshaw and the shared auto. While the former is used for shorter distances, this left only the latter for longer distances. They are highly male spaces and are often very crowded. The introduction of the Metro led to the provision of autos and a few buses, though we are still awaiting the bus stops. The autos though are still unmetered and unorganised. For a short period, a system of pink autos solely dedicated to women was  in service, but it slowly fizzled out for reasons of impracticality. We do not need separate autos for women, we need more and better managed public transport. Some systematisation will create a more efficient system. Using informal and unregulated transport makes women more vulnerable, but often they are left with no choice as they need mobility.

The discourse around safety must be located within a broader framework of rights. Lack of safety in fact prevents women from fully participating in the city. Thus providing safety or finding solutions also need to be posited within a framework of rights.  Women cannot be told to find their own solutions for their insecurity.  Solutions like carrying pepper sprays or learning self-defense are individualized solutions which are not based on the notion of safety as a right. The solutions have to emerge from consultative processes where the voices of all people, especially vulnerable populations, must be heard and given value. Only then can women access the full range of rights of being an urban citizen. For women, in fact the right to live, work, move around and participate in the city is premised on the right to safety.

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