Enabling Safe Urban Spaces For Women In India

How can we address the factors contributing to gender based violence in public spaces? We need to look at the lack of women in public spaces at hours that they normally don't stay out, in places that they don't frequent and doing jobs or activities that they normally wouldn't.
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Earlier this spring my friends and I attended the Culture Night in Stockholm, where all the museums, theatres and other cultural institutions were open to the public for free until midnight. After absorbing all that the city could offer, we wearily boarded the train in the early morning to return home. My colleague Neelam, who is also from India, remarked that besides our small group of women, the train was filled with mainly women and young girls.

Now this may sound surprising to you but where we come from, you will not find as many women out late at night, certainly not travelling by public transport and definitely not in a general train compartment.

The presence of many women around us gave us the comfort that we were in a "safe" place and that there were allies should anything happen. In fact, we quite forgot that it was past midnight. It felt like a normal evening.

Contrast that with India, where you don't find too many women around -- either by themselves or in groups. In fact, you may not even find them accompanied by men, as even men do not feel safe travelling late at night with women, for fear of being attacked.

A 2012 survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India showed that 92 percent of working women in India said they felt insecure, especially at night, in all major economic centres across the country. All of the survey respondents--women in the Delhi National Capital Region, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune and Dehradun--feel that the problem of women's insecurity is bigger than any other challenge currently facing India.

The key issues that contribute to women feeling "unsafe or uncomfortable" are poor lighting, no access to emergency assistance and inadequate police security.

Violent crime and harassment in public spaces does not happen in isolation; many factors contribute. Oscar Newman in his book, "Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space," explains: "Defensible space therefore is a sociophysical phenomenon. Both society and physical elements are parts of a successful defensible space." The theory argues that an area is safer when people feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for that piece of a community.

Newman asserts that "the criminal is isolated because his turf is removed" when each space in an area is owned and cared for by a responsible party. If an intruder can sense a watchful community, he feels less secure committing his crime. The idea is that crime and delinquency can be controlled and mitigated through environmental design.

So how can we address the factors contributing to gender based violence in public spaces? We need to look at the lack of women in public spaces at hours that they normally don't stay out, in places that they don't frequent and doing jobs or activities that they normally wouldn't.

Having more women challenge traditional roles and stereotypes contributes to women gaining confidence to push the boundaries for themselves, stay out in public longer, take on unconventional jobs, and explore possibilities that might advance their education or career.

Recently, the Delhi transport authorities recruited the first woman bus driver, Saritha Vankadarath as part of their campaign to fight endemic sexual harassment on buses and public transport.

"Some [passengers] get surprised when they see me," Vankadarath said. "But I think they all feel safe with a woman driver on board. Hopefully I will inspire other women to come forward and take up jobs which are always done by men. [It] gives more confidence to women travellers. Many women passengers have told me this and congratulated me. They say women face a lot of harassment on buses, so having a women driver just might make things easier."

But just the presence of more women in public late at night is not going to make a public space safer. There are other factors that need to be addressed too.

Lighting, for instance, plays a very important role in "situational awareness". Dark spaces are comfort zones for perpetrators who ambush unsuspecting victims and no amount of closed circuit television cameras can capture the scene.

In this digital age, we can definitely use maps to our advantage -- to know the lay of the land, familiarise ourselves with routes and alternate routes, locations of important places like police stations, hospitals, subway and train stations and bus stops. Visually plotting maps with information on safety is another way to keep local knowledge updated.

Culturally, however, the locals always know which area of a city is unsafe even during the day and what areas are to be avoided during the night -- and these are the places where safety needs to be improved first. At a workshop that we did at a high school here in Sweden, the girls shared that they would never walk through a park in Stockholm at night for fear of being mugged or attacked.

Gender-based violence in public spaces does not happen in isolation but has many factors contributing to it. But if we start with the premise that no place should be unsafe, we can work on solutions that empower women to be outside the home later at night -- without fear.

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