Women’s safety in India
The death of the 23-year old physiotherapy student after she was gang raped on a New Delhi bus has commanded headlines around the world. This appalling and tragic event has focused attention on the failures of the Indian authorities, and Indian society more generally, to tackle long standing problems of sexual assault and harassment. The sense of outrage stepped up when allegations emerged over the weekend of another gang-rape and murder in Noida, a satellite city east of Delhi. The media has concentrated on the failures of the local police. However, planners and urban designers also need to address the issues of women’s safety in urban areas.
Jagori (which means “Awaken, women”) is an Indian women’s NGO that has played a prominent part in research and advocacy on making places safe for women. It began work some 20 years ago, mainly with a rural focus, since in conservative rural India levels of education and awareness amongst women are low. However, some of its more recent work has directly tackled concerns about the safety of women in India’s rapidly growing cities.
In 2004 Jagori launched its Safe Delhi campaign. It argued that “A constant fear of violence and the day today incidences made the city non-inclusive, inaccessible and unsafe space for women and other vulnerable sections of the society. Such a fear plays into most of the decisions women take and influences their choices, which often ends up reducing the opportunities. For example, often, girls from South Delhi don’t take admissions in colleges in North Campus to avoid using public transport for long hours or lack of proper toilets in several communities adversely affects women’s health condition.”
Jagori has used safety audits as a key means of collecting information and formulating solutions. For example, last year it worked with Parichiti, another women’s organisation, to conduct safety audits at three stations in Kolkata. The focus of this work was particularly on women domestic workers (WDW). Parichiti particularly works with poor and marginalised women and girls. It describes the WDW who commute into Kolkata on trains each day as “marginalised amongst the marginalised.” Their labour is vital to the metropolis but they are stigmatised.
The safety audits revealed not only harassment on the trains, but a catalogue of risks in and around the stations. For example, they highlighted the lack of access to drinking water, toilets and waiting areas, along with poorly-lit spaces and passages, so that people prefer to cross the tracks rather than use the bridges over the tracks. In addition, the stations were very difficult for people with disabilities: for example, there were no ramps or escalators.
There are some encouraging signs that the message of groups like Jagori is being taken more seriously than in the past. The Delhi Development Authority has established a Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre (UTTIPEC) . Last month it put out a presentation about its draft ideas for making Delhi safer for women. It uses the work done by Jagori.
The UTTIPEC presentation shows how design of transport and the built environment can influence the vulnerability of women to sexual assault and harassment. Poorly lit and unwatched areas pose particular hazards, for example. It describes flyovers and grade-separated junctions as “rape dens”.
Many of the prescriptions are obvious and should not be controversial – e.g. better lighting of streets, walkways, bus stops etc. Traffic calming is seen as important – slow moving traffic that has to stop at traffic lights reduces risks. However, some insights gained from the Jagori research may be more difficult for traditionally-minded physical planners (who are already challenged by the idea that there is a gender dimension to their work) to accept.
Planning with informality – for safety and equity
For example, the draft guidance takes a positive stance towards hawking and street markets. It calls for the abolition of existing development control policies that require set-backs and boundary walls. Instead the call is for active uses alongside the edge of the road.
It advocates using simple markings and bollards to create “Multi-Utility Zones” (MUZ) along major routes to enable street vendors to operate there. The argument is that this is cheap, supports jobs for poor people, makes shopping more accessible and provides the “eyes on the street” to enhance women’s safety.
This idea draws on the innovative work on street improvements in New York led by Janette Sadik-Khan, who is the city’s Commissioner of the Department of Transportation. There is even the idea of creating a Ramblas-style vending zone down the median strip on wide roads, with frequent crossing places and fencing to safeguard against jay-walking.
More radically still in the local context, UTTIPEC is suggesting that vendors and rickshaw drivers should be allowed to sleep at night in the MUZ where they could access toilets and basic facilities. In this way planning could begin to engage with the realities of informality in a positive rather than repressive manner.
The vision is practical, far reaching and long term. The call is to put Transit-oriented development at the heart of planning policy across Delhi, not just for reasons of environmental sustainability or commercial benefit, but also as a means to make the city safer for women. Women’s safety guidelines and indicators should become a mandatory part of planning practice. “Women’s safety issues to be incorporated into Local Area Plans… Detailed check-list on women’s safety to be provided to all developers, public and private. Compliance and certification mandatory”. In addition, changes are proposed to planning education “to ensure that women’s safety issues are part of the training imparted to urban planners and designers”.
A call to action
While some aspects of these guidelines are necessarily specific to Indian urban conditions, the international interest sparked by the gang-rape and murder in Delhi demonstrates that the issues are global. The planning profession is weakened by its long term failure to engage with issues of women’s safety in the built environment, and by the lack of a global voice to put the issue on the agenda. Maybe as a New Year resolution planners could commit to active engagement, in partnership with other professionals and groups like Jagori, to tackle women’s safety, locally and globally in 2013.