Women Want Safer Cities

By Taru Bahl,Womens Feature Service

Mamta Bhandari is a cashier at Uttam Nagar’s Sharma Gas, one of Delhi’s largest gas agencies. She lives in Janakpuri. Her daily commute is largely safe except for the half kilometre stretch that she has to walk from the bus stand to her place of work. Local hoodlums line the road in the evenings passing lewd remarks. The recent incident of a boy throwing acid on the face of a girl who had spurned his advances shook Mamta’s confidence so much that she wanted to quit her job. But the agency stepped in and ensured that she is escorted every evening to the bus stop. Mamta’s concerns got addressed but what about other women and girls like her who have to face sexual harassment every day?

With the increasing incidence of crimes against women and a growing sense of insecurity among women, whether they are from affluent backgrounds or whether they live in city slums, women are beginning to demand safer public spaces for themselves. Wanting to be able to walk the streets without fear, they are demanding that their state governments, employers and public utility providers make their homes, offices and neighbourhoods safer.

The Safe City Campaign, recently launched by the Government of Delhi, in collaboration with UNIFEM, Jagori and UN Habitat, has a well mapped out strategy involving multiple agencies to make the city safer. Studies will be commissioned, interventions suggested and trainings held to sensitise different stakeholders. The campaign will be replicated in Thiruvananthapuram in 2010 in collaboration with the Kerala government, and later in other states.

Rajeev Kale, Director with the Ministry of Health, points out the ironies that mark a woman’s existence in Delhi. He says, “While there is the Domestic Violence Act to safeguard a woman’s interests within her home and there’s a Supreme Court judgment that seeks to protect her from harassment at work, what about the in-between places that exist between her home and her destination, which could be the office, market place or a park? Who is mandated to guarantee her safety there?” Indeed, this is a question that women across cities in India are asking, as their concerns about personal safety remain largely unaddressed despite new threats fast emerging.

Kalpana Vishwanath, a member of Jagori, an organisation that works for women’s rights and gender equality, points out that Jagori’s Safe City journey began five years ago. The attempt then was to draw attention to the fact that the safety of women was not just a woman’s issue. “Today, four years down the line, the Delhi government sees merit in joining hands, reviving the campaign and scaling it up. Part of the reason for this is the upcoming Commonwealth Games but the real reason is to address growing concerns about women’s safety,” she believes. She is particularly hopeful of the project yielding evidence-based findings through substantive data, studies and pointers to the social behaviour of both men and women, which could feed into constructive women-friendly interventions.

Rama, 12, was an active participant of the safety audit that Jagori carried out in 2008 in Madanpur Khadar, one of Delhi’s largest urban slums and home to about 600 young girls. She helped evaluate the topography of the area and identify zones and specific spots where women did not feel safe. Ironically, these were not necessarily restricted to blind alleys, dark corners and secluded under-construction sites but places like public toilets and parks – locations that most people would consider safe for women.

In the weeks that followed, these areas were beautified, repaired and sufficiently lit up. Findings revealed that the caretaker at the public toilet was a threat to women, who said that he often misbehaved by forcing the girls to either not use the toilet or go into the open fields. The parks and ‘nullahs’ (open drains) were rarely frequented by women and children earlier, largely because they were being used for gambling, drinking and other unsavoury activities. Today, they have become lush green patches where boys and girls play together. In fact, girls who never used to step out of their homes unescorted now fearlessly walk and cycle around the area.

As part of the Safe City campaign, the Delhi government also has a “civility initiation” in mind for Delhi’s residents, besides plans to conduct a sensitisation training in schools and colleges. Also, housewives will be given specialist inputs on how to bring up their sons to ensure that they grow up with a gender-neutral perspective. There are also plans under the Delhi government’s Bhagidari approach, to involve Resident Welfare Associations and Market Trader Associations in the initiative.

On routes that have heavy traffic and buses of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) ply, Closed Circuit Televisions (CCTVs) will be installed. Indicators saying ‘You are being watched’ will also be put up in buses, metros and local trains to serve as deterrents. Gender Resource Centres (GRCs) of the Mission Convergence Programme, which already addresses women’s empowerment issues, will work with both boys and girls in schools and community-based groups, on issues of equality, respect and empowerment. The campaign will be a collaborative effort, involving all the relevant administrative bodies, whether it is the municipality, or the education and law ministries.

According to a study carried out by industry chamber, ASSCOHAM earlier this year, 53 per cent working women in India fear for their safety. Most feel insecure and threatened the moment they leave home. The study recommended that apart from employers setting an internal code to ensure security of women employees, governments should make it mandatory to install Global Positioning System (GPS) in cabs used by call centres, BPOs, hospitals, media houses and any other establishments where women have to work after dark. They also suggested that efficient complaint redressal systems be set up and women trained in self defence and legal matters.

Another recent baseline study, conducted by the Centre for Equity and Inclusion in Delhi, revealed that 97 per cent of women respondents felt that sexual harassment in the city is fairly common, and that they had little faith in the law enforcement agencies. Among the places they found least safe, were parks and bus stops, empty roads, market places and subways, in that order.

Anne Stenhammer, Regional Director, UNIFEM, points out that it is not just in India but world over that sexual harassment of women is rampant. Redressal mechanisms are weak and ineffective and a woman’s complaint is often ignored, not taken serious enough, or worse, she herself is blamed for it. According to Stenhammer, it is poor and marginalised women who are the most vulnerable, given the insecure conditions in which they live. She argued for a strong safe city initiative, ably backed by political will.

The Safe Delhi Initiative is clearly an idea whose time has come. Now it is time for other Indian cities to take steps in this direction so that women everywhere can lead more secure lives.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.