Making our cities safe for women

The mainstream response to any form of sexual violence is to reduce women’s freedoms, choices and rights


Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Following the recent molestation incidents in Bengaluru, women’s safety is once again in the news and back in the public consciousness. We have the usual blame-the-victim and deny-it-happened along with announcements of the purchase of more CCTVs and other quick fixes. We find that the notion of safety is often a narrow one which focuses on security and protection, rather than safety as a right. The mainstream response to any form of sexual violence is to reduce women’s freedoms, choices and rights.

Political commitment is needed to bring about long-term and systemic change that addresses the actual causes of the problem. There are no easy, rapid solutions; the long road towards gender equality and rights needs to be traversed. Jagori, a feminist organization, has been working to build a holistic framework on ending violence against women in private and public spaces. This framework recognizes that ending violence against women must be addressed through a multi-pronged strategy and must involve a wide range of stakeholders. In addition to the police and law enforcement, urban and transport planners need to engage with women as equal citizens. Further, education systems and the media need to foster an ethos of equality and to challenge patriarchal and anti-women ideologies.

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One of the key stakeholders is the police. It is essential to build more robust policing and legal systems. From the moment an incident of violence takes place, there should be quick, efficient and non-judgemental responses. There should be no questions asked about why she was out or what she was wearing or who she was with. The case must be followed up and dealt with swiftly and effectively by the legal system so that perpetrators of violence fear the repercussions of their actions.

Recent data shows that while reporting of violence against women, especially sexual harassment in public spaces, has gone up, convictions are still abysmally low. The number of cases reported has been rising consistently since 2013, when there were amendments to the legal framework post the Nirbhaya case outrage and the report of the justice J.S. Verma Committee. The reporting went up by 56% from 2012 to 2013 and then by another 16% in 2014. But national data also shows that only one out of 10 cases reaches the stage of conviction. In Karnataka, only one of 100 cases registered under Section 354 led to convictions in 2015. Clearly the system needs to be strengthened. Further, the police must also register a case suo motu and not wait for the complainants to file the first information report, once they have access to evidence of molestation.

Addressing the police and legal systems is not enough. We need gender-sensitive urban planning, service delivery and governance in order to ensure that our cities and towns are designed in ways that ensure accessibility, safety and inclusion. Unfortunately, more and more cities are losing public spaces and erecting higher walls. Safety audits done across cities in India have shown that effective measures taken on urban planning such as good lighting and “eyes on the street” can make spaces safer. This could include providing seating on the street, and encourage the presence of street vendors and outdoor activities.

Many cities around the world have been making interesting changes to be more inclusive. In Seoul, public spaces have been revitalized by making them pedestrian areas with shops and establishments that make the street-front active. In Rosario, Argentina, wall art has been used to engage young men in making public spaces more usable and in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, women have used safety audits to make markets more women-friendly. Our cities and towns need to be planned in ways that ensure the streets are active, lively and usable by a wide variety of people, including women, children and the disabled. Along with this, communities need to be caring, respectful and willing to intervene and respond to threats and crises.

Good and safe public transport is central to women’s mobility and right to the city. Studies from across Indian cities have shown that women have reported facing a great deal of sexual harassment while using and waiting for public transport. Having women-only carriages and buses may be a partial temporary solution, but all forms of public transport must provide for instant redress and support through helplines and other measures for women and girls to use at all times of the day and even night.

Women have as much right to the city as anyone else. They have the right to access public spaces at any time of day and night and it is the duty of the state to ensure they are not violated. Their voice in planning the city, its infrastructure, and other public services is crucial. Women need to be seen as equal citizens and not just as victims. This would require a fundamental change in prevalent patriarchal norms.

Women are negotiating their safety and taking risks to assert their freedom and rights. There are several initiatives by young women who have taken to the streets to break barriers of patriarchy and misogyny. When women and girls around the country are breaking their silence, it is a shame that some people in public office are attempting to silence them.

As a country, we need to rise up to this challenge of gender equality and justice.

Kalpana Viswanath and Suneeta Dhar are, respectively, co-founder of Safetipin, working on issues of gender and urban safety, and a senior adviser with Jagori and co-founder director at South Asia Women’s Fund.

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