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Building gender inclusive cities

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Arunika Sharma
Arunika Sharma
Ms. Arunika Sharma is currently working as an Architect in District Kangra of Himachal Pradesh, India.

Violence against women is not new and has become a critical issue in all-developmental deliberations across the globe in the 21st century. United Nation’s (UN’s) ‘Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women’) states: ‘violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women”. It further states that, “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms” This UN Declaration defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in India violence against women has increased at all-India level: in 2009 reported crimes against women were 203,804, which increased to 337,922 in 2014, an increase of 9.6 per cent per year (p.a.) during the 5-year period. More than the actual incidence of specific crimes against women such as rape, harassment and sexual assaults and other crimes such as robbery, the fear of becoming victim of such crimes deters women from moving out of their homes, more so after the nightfall than during the day. Women also experience a sense of insecurity in crowded places during even day time due to fear of being inappropriately touched, pawed, stalked and starred at.

Therefore, this fear of violence often controls their mobility patterns and restricts them from taking full advantage of the city pleasures, consequently undermining their ‘Right to Public Spaces’ and thereby ‘Right to the City’ (UN-HABITAT et al 2010). Based on the experiences faced by the women and their perceptions while using public spaces it is the need of the hour to bring general awareness and act on its designing in order to aim at their safe access to water, existence and security of communal toilet facilities in informal settlements, slum upgrades, gender sensitive street and city design, safe car parks, shopping centres and public transportation”. (UN-HABITAT et al 2008).

Time and again women are constantly troubled by the fear of violence while using public spaces but what they actually jeopardy is essentially the opportunity of experiencing the civic life and being able to participate in city. This kind of risk makes women often see themselves looked upon as illegitimate users of public spaces and thus hesitate in going out into the streets without any reason. Many activists, and feminist of high repute believe that women will truly be empowered when they will be able to loiter in the city and seek pleasure without demonstrating a respectable purpose (Phadke et al 2009). Therefore, in order to make public spaces safer for women, they should be made accessible to everyone at all the times of the day without anyone’s freedom at stake.

Safety and the Built Environment

Built environment or the built world, refers to the human-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activities, ranging in scale from buildings to parks. It has been defined as “the human-made space in which people live, work, and recreate on a day-to-day basis. The “built environment encompasses places and spaces created or modified by people including buildings, parks, and transportation systems.

Women feel insecure due to a wide range of factors in the public spaces, including poor design and infrastructural facilities, behavioural patterns of the society, inadequacy of education system with respect to gender relation and economic incongruence. Women reveal that they comparatively feel safer on crowded roads than on the uninhabited ones. This ideology by women of safe environment gives rise to adoption of better public spaces and built environment by imputing the role to urban planners and designers.

We can hence arrive to a solution that the state of infrastructure is weak, therefore streetlights, the state of pavements, bus stops, height of trees, maintenance of parks, dark areas, state of parking; all these are key areas of concern which needs to be modified as per the safety and security guidelines. Consequently, the culture of the city plays a vital role in determining the usage of these spaces.

Experiences faced by women in the Public Spaces

Based on experiences faced by women it is revealed that women feel unsafe while travelling however there are shortcomings in the designing and infrastructure that is absence of services such as footpaths crossings, poor locations of bus stops and high floor of buses. Consequently, socio-cultural perspectives studies discourses that lack of proper infrastructure like lighting, good design, and visibility at stops and stations, proper signage in regional languages, bus or train timings and strict vigilance from the transport authorities, can infuse a sense of insecurity among women passengers. Overcrowded buses and poorly lit bus stops have also been identified among other major components that cause discomfort to women while travelling.

Therefore, planning and designing safe public transportation systems for women requires intervention at three levels (i) Land use planning (ii) Street Designing (iii) Availability of Public Transport Infrastructure. The Delhi’s Nirbhaya rape case in the year 2012 happened because of the same reason as the public transport was not available at wee hours, the couple had to board a private bus which was not commissioned at the time of the boarding. Therefore non-availability of public transportation forces women to use Intermediate Public Transportation (IPT) such as taxis and often-unsafe mode of transportation such as six-seater tuk tuks etc. Therefore, lack of availability of public transport has become a major point of women’s sexual harassment and lack of safety on the streets.

Land use planning must promote mixed land uses so that there are activities on the street during all the times of the day as places for public activities that attract people all times of the day afford a sense of security. For example, presence of vendors and shop fronts on the streets gives a sense of security to an otherwise empty road. Hence, segregated land uses, such as planning of CBD areas could lead to a situation of CBD becoming deserted after office hours and during weekends, thereby creating a sense of insecurity.

Also when streets are designed, the conventional understanding of it is to design it for vehicular traffic and in that too for motorised four wheelers. The level of service of any design of road and its intersection is measured in terms of delay faced by the motorised traffic. In designing roads thus, pedestrians perceive lack of safety. Often footpath/ sidewalk width is reduced to increase the motorable roadway. The road junction and traffic signals are so designed that there is continuous vehicular movement. For pedestrian crossing, foot over bridges or under-passes are constructed; but the latter are inherently unsafe for the fear of being mugged and specifically for women for both mugging and sexual assault. Foot- over bridges are inconvenient to a large number of people.

The designing of public infrastructure, which comprises of access to public transportation stops, designing of the stops and vehicle designs have to become safety and security complaint. Lighting, good design, visibility at stops and stations are an essential component in creating feelings of security (Tiwari 2014). Lastly, there have to be better signage on the road and public transport information available so that women are not forced to ask strangers on directions and public transport availability, as there are possibilities of strangers mis-directing or assaulting them in secluded places.

Components contributing in making women feel unsafe

While women access public spaces, there are various components that contribute in making them feel unsafe and amplify their fear of violence. Various studies conducted in developing and developed world suggests that, a large component of this is the social structure and the perception of gender roles of women; whereas many of these components deal with the following infrastructure and design issues:

· Lack of proper lighting

Poorly-lit streets pose a danger to women

Dark streets, corners and spaces have been highlighted as one of the major concern of women while using public spaces. Dark entry and exit points of public spaces and car parks cause discomfort to women in the night. Many women while waiting for the bus on the street or travelling or just walking along the public space specifically avoid such spots or stretches. During the course of most of safety audits in Delhi, almost all the car parks audited felt unsafe (UNHABITAT et al 2010). They are not uniformly lit as all car parks had dark corners, dark entrances, or sections in darkness many car parks, including the underground ones, have a few abandoned vehicles lying in a corner. The attendants are present only at the entry/exit points and women feel uncomfortable getting to their cars after dark (Vishwanath and Mehrotra 2007: 1546).

· Lack of visibility in public spaces

It is observed that women prefer being in areas that they are familiar with or areas where they can easily call for help or run away if they face any kind of violence. Therefore the spaces, which increase their possibility of being, obscure to all hassles them. As per the study conducted by Women in Cities International 2010, “Together for women safety” there are three concerns raised by women in public spaces:

· To see and to be seen

Illl-maintained spaces cause discomfort to women and many times leads to women avoiding those spots or finding alternative routes

· To hear and to be heard

· To get away and get helped

Thus spaces having higher visibility are often perceived as safe by women as it allows them to be seen, heard and get help in case any unfortunate incidence takes place.

· Poor maintenance of open public spaces

Overall in all studies women have suggested that having poorly maintained spaces not only give rise to the fear of violence but also to the fear of accidents and health issues. Hence pot holes that are not fixed, sidewalks that can not be walked on, trees that cloud all the light from the street lights, etc. further threaten women while using public spaces. Thus the ill-maintained spaces cause discomfort to women and many times leads to women avoiding those spots or finding alternative routes to avoid the fear of violence or discomfort.

· Empty and dilapidated parts of the building/plots

It has been observed that women feel uncomfortable walking besides large empty walls or empty plots and dilapidated buildings for the fear of not receiving help on being attacked. Studies indicate that the deserted buildings are also feared, as they mostly are shady and dominated by men who engage in illicit activities further increasing the fear of violence among women. “Interestingly, the FGD participants pointed out that they felt unsafe both in deserted and in crowded spaces. In deserted spaces, they claimed there was greater fear of assault or rape and in crowded spaces; men took advantage of the crowd to sexually harass women.” (Jagori 2010: 17)

· Lack of familiar people/ shops/ vendors

Women across the globe have mentioned that places or neighborhoods that seem familiar of have presence of people they may know increases the safety factor of any space. Women also in general have highlighted the significance of shops and vendors in the public spaces for enhancing the safety factor. Thus when women are in spaces that lack these factors, they find the absence of informal surveillance scary. This is mainly because the presence of people or vendors or shops ensures activities and movement in the public spaces, which means that in time of need, people are around to help. “Women reported feeling safe in moving around after dark because of the presence of familiar vendors selling vegetables and other household items, the local ironing person and others who are regularly present till late in the evening.” (Vishwanath and Mehrotra 2007: 1547).

· Male dominated spaces

Women do not prefer to use spaces that are well lit during the night or even during the day if men dominate these. Women find large groups of men intimidating and as they feel that running away in time of need would be more difficult around such areas. Thus women usually avoid going to such places where larger number of men occupy the space. However this is slightly different if along with the men, there is also an overwhelming majority of women. Thus it is seen in all studies that male dominated spaces are preferable ‘avoided’ spaces, since women feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

· Lack of clean public toilets

Certain infrastructure issues such as public toilets are specific to slums and resettlement areas, as the residents here have no private toilets in their houses. The inadequate facilities make lives of women in these areas acutely vulnerable. Public toilets in most of the slums and resettlement areas were found to be unusable as they have broken doors or are in a filthy state.

Many toilets were found to be unsafe as only paid toilets had attendants — women reported incidents when men have entered women’s toilets and have reported harassment by attendants as well. There have been various instances where the public toilets of men and women are so close to each other and have open roofs that visual and verbal violence become very common while using such toilets (Jagori, 2007; Parichiti 2012). Absence of toilets force women to defecate in open. To protect their modesty, women defecate in open during dark hours, when threat of sexual harassment increase. Even poorly maintained toilets too have the same effect. Women have also reported encounters of flashing, starring or stalking in these fields and the toilets. “Fields are preferred due to lack of maintenance of toilets or financial reasons. Across slums and resettlement areas, women narrated stories about harassment in the fields — flashing or just staring at them when squatting.” (Vishwanath and Mehrotra 2008).

· Presence of men involved in drugs and alcohol at public spaces

In many studies, sites where there are men dealing with alcohol or drugs have been considered as anti-social elements that threaten the safety of women while using public spaces. Also, women fear men who are consumers of such sites as inebriated men are perceived as ‘out of control’ and may engage in harassing women (See Mahadevia et al 2016 for Guwahati). Many women feel that these activities in their neighborhood not only causes threat to their personal safety but also contribute in increasing the chances of their kids being under bad influence. “For both women respondents and common witnesses seeing men dealing with or taking alcohol and drugs gives a feeling of lack of comfort and safety. Around 68 per cent women respondents and 79 per cent common witnesses said so.” (SAKHI 2011: 15)

Components making women feel safe

However there are certain elements that make women feel safe while interacting with the city. These elements are related to infrastructure and activities in the public spaces and converse of what has been stated in the previous section.

· Well lit spaces

Women in general find dark corners and dark spaces very unsafe and thus when the streets or the bus stops are well lit it enhances the feeling of safety in them. The thought of being able to see their attackers as well as being visible to the other people in case they need help emerged as a huge area of concern when public spaces were concerned. Women tend to use spaces or routes/streets that are well lit even if those particular routes/streets take more time than the alternate shorter but poorly lit route. Thus at a Women’s Safety Audit (WSA) at Patpargunj, Delhi it was found: “A large number of people are present on the main well lit roads even after dark. Many women come out to buy vegetables from vendors. Young girls and women visit the markets, mostly walking, till 9pm. However, one would rarely find a woman on an inner poorly lit street.” (Jagori 2011: 20)

· Well maintained spaces

Spaces that are well maintained and hygienic help women feeling safe, particularly the old or the disabled women. People walking on the road instead of the sidewalk is a common sight in Indian cities but it makes women feel unsafe as many of them think that young men on bikes overtake them in high speed shouting things at them or often snatching their chains. Walkable sidewalks free of urinating men, cleaner spaces shaded pathways, etc are convenient while using public spaces and thus makes women feel safer and better. Thus majority women in both — developed and developing countries feel being in well-maintained spaces enhances safety and comfort, enriching their experience.

Public places must be monitored by female security guards

· Places with surveillance

Since women feel unsafe in deserted spaces and empty plots, it is obvious that in presence of people they feel safer. However this is not true if the public space is over-crowded, where they fear harassment such as pawing. But in general when women are around shops or stalls that receive customers and vendors who ‘keep an eye’ on the space, it gives them a feeling of reassurance and helps them feel safer. Women across the globe have also reported of feeling safe when the spaces are ‘well-patrolled’ or have CCTV installed. This way they are ensured that in need the officials would help them and in case any accident occurs, the cameras will be able to catch their culprit. “The guards and the dhobi outside each society never give a deserted feeling to any main road”. (Women Safety Audit (WSA) at Patparganj) (Jagori 2011: 20).

· Places thriving with people

Places that usually host a lot of activities and events make the public space appear not only safe but also interesting. The type of people coming to the public spaces or street also decides whether it contributes in making women feel safe or unsafe. This is clearly indicated in various studies across the globe, where women have reported feeling safe around various user groups like ‘middle-aged people’, ‘women’, ‘families’, etc. “The women we spoke with at India Gate lawns were of the view that they felt safe in the area as it was well lit and crowed and there were large number of vendors. Some added that being a popular family destination added to its safety.” (Jagori 2011: 44).

Usually the problem of safety does not occur much while going to parks and gardens or malls because their families or husbands or friends to these spaces always accompany women. Women have reported of feeling safe with male companies as they think that the men will be able to save them if needed. Thus it can be said that this restricts the movement of women in our cities and makes them more depended on men.

· Well connected spaces (with public transport)

Women find it convenient if the public spaces are accessible by well-connected transport system. This enables them access the public spaces independently and economically. Thus women have often mentioned in both — developed and developing countries that public spaces that are well connected from their houses often appear more accessible and safer (SAKHI 2011).

Other factors

There are various other factors that make women feel safer like — their company, the type of crowd using the space, the time of the visits, the familiarity with the space, etc. Many studies have shown that women often feel unsafe in presence of‘lower-class’ men or the poorThere are hierarchies of the ‘legitimate users’ where the ‘upper-class’ men are often perceived as the most legitimate, followed by the ‘middle-class’ and ‘upper-class’ women, followed by ‘lower class’ women. The bottom of the hierarchy comprises of the lower class men, the houseless, the beggars, the ‘taporis’ etc. But what is important to understand is that inclusion of any group cannot and should not come at the cost of the exclusion of any other user group (Phadke et al 2009).

Recommendations for creating safe public spaces

How can we assert that women are at risk at public spaces while simultaneously rejecting representations that project women only as victims in need of a protection that inevitably moves towards restrictions, surveillance and control?” (Phadke 2005: 59). Across cultures, the safety of women is considered the usually considered as the individual’s responsibility rather than that of the society. And thus if women face violence in public spaces they are either scolded for ‘being out in the wrong time’ or ‘provoking the men’ or are either advised to carry pepper sprays/ small knifes/ heavy bags or wear heels or enroll for self defense. Restriction on women in moving about in the city cannot be a solution to women’s safety; women have as much right to loiter in city as men (Phadke et al 2009). Thus various reports by UNHABITAT, UNIFEM, UN Women and many other organizations working on this issue have given the following recommendations that can lead to better and safer spaces for women in our cities:

· Organizing cultural, sports, and recreational activities in neighborhood public spaces: By doing so one ensures increased activities in the neighborhood, making spaces more lively and active. This also ensures ‘eyes on the public spaces’, making them increasingly safe. These activities along with helping in ensuring safety will also bring the neighbors closer and contribute to better health of the people.

· Have well-lit spaces, entry/exit spots, and corners: This becomes an extremely important solution. This doesn’t just make their chances of identifying their attackers easier, but also ensures their visibility, which may be able to fetch help if needed.

· Promote mixed-use development along the public spaces: This solution has been very popular lately in the developing nations. There are many cities in the developing countries that have illustrated the impact of having more mixed use development on the over all safety and quality of life. Ahmedabad is one such city that has a high rate of mixed-use development along its majority streets. When there are mixed use developments along the public spaces, this ensures extended hours of activities making the area safer.

· Maintain streets and plazas: Having spaces that are well maintained enhance the comfort levels of women. Fixing potholes and pavements increases the chances of not tripping and falling and getting hurt. Prune trees helps in making spaces well-lit while having attractive plazas and spaces would enrich the overall experiences of women visiting them.

· Provide round the clock surveillance- formal or informal: Since surveillance has been indicated as a great contributor in increasing safety of women, it is extremely important to have round the clock surveillance. It can be formal like patrolling guards, CCTV, etc or informal like vendors, shopkeepers, people, etc.

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Arunika Sharma
Arunika Sharma
Ms. Arunika Sharma is currently working as an Architect in District Kangra of Himachal Pradesh, India.
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