Women’s access to public spaces and their safety has never really been of much concern for urban planners in Mumbai, but it is high time measures towards gender mainstreaming are incorporated in urban design by all agencies concerned, says Smita Nair
On nights, when Snehal Velkar (30) waits at Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) for a BEST bus, she often finds herself fidgeting. The patch of road where the bus stop stands is dark and desolate, with most gates of offices already closed. Ironically, Velkar, a programme officer with NGO Akshara, is also an external member at the RBI’s anti-sexual harassment committee and has to often sit and ideate in policy meetings at RBI’s BKC office.
“Often, I look around desperately to spot some movement, some chaos, some trace of life,” she says.
Velkar’s case begs a larger question: are our cities designed for our women? Do urban planners, policy makers, civic and security administration take into account their fears and perceptions while designing our roads, bridges, open spaces, grounds and parks?
As per 2011 Census, the city has a population of 1.27 crore, of which 45 per cent are women. Of the total 57.41 lakh women, around eight lakh are working women while over 20 lakh commute daily to places like schools, shops and establishments.
Increasing number of surveys and audits by rights groups point to a direct relation between gender equality, safety and urban planning and identify gender mainstreaming in public spaces as an important strategy towards public security.
With women’s contribution to world income showing an increase from the 1970s, cities across the world have started redesigning their public spaces to provide equal access to women. In India, however, gender sensitivity is still seen lacking even in cities like Mumbai, right from the manner in which our urban infrastructure is planned.
This month, for the first time, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has called for suggestions and revisions to its Development Plan for Mumbai for 2014-34. The idea is to deliberate in an open-house meet on suggestions to make the city and its planning more inclusive. The meet will be held on January 20 at the office of F South ward in Parel, between 2 and 6 pm.
Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte admits that a “gendered perspective” in urban planning has been near absent thus far. “In urban planning and design, the interests of various stakeholders are taken into account.
Somehow, so far, the gender perspective was not given priority. This is why we are now holding these public consultative workshops. We want to include ideas and suggestions on how Mumbai can become more women-friendly. This will be incorporated in the Development Plan, which will plan for women-friendly public spaces.”
NGO Akshara, which has been studying gender sensitivity in open spaces since 2011, has found some interesting factoids on “women’s perception” on safety and sexual harassment. “During one of the security audits, we found fear was stark on a road in Prabhadevi. On one side of the road was a garbage dump while on the other side, there was a stall with men huddled outside. Most of the women showed a peculiar behaviour. They would walk on the wide road freely till they neared the stall, where they would shift to the garbage side of the road. Later, at some distance, they would again move to the other side of the road. They preferred to walk around garbage, away from men, even when they were not staring at them. This is perceived fear,” Velkar says.
“These points are factored while cities are designed in western countries,” she says.
In 2011, Akshara’s survey on sexual harassment showed 47 per cent of the women felt unsafe in public places, something which led to security audits. Surveyors were surprised to find BEST buses as the most unsafe space since men took advantage of the crowd and pinched and groped women. The way the buses were designed, with narrow pathways, made matters only worse.
The security audits undertaken in 2013 with the help of volunteers, students and community workers, echoed the same fears. Another example that emerged was public toilets. At Antop Hill, women in slums stopped using public urinals at nights after they found men waiting inside to grope them in the dark.
A Mumbai police’s study found that between 2012 and 2013, chain-snatching incidents were frequent in spaces where footpaths were unlit and uneven. The police’s audit accounted for all roads that had no street-lighting and limited population density at nights. Additional manpower on the ground, security infrastructure around abandoned public spaces, CCTV surveillance and well-lit public promenades are being now looked upon as measures of security.
However, Sulakshana Mahajan (62), an urban planner, says that while these are essential measures, there is a need is for considered approach. “Even details like how much of visual space is optimum to make a woman feel safe in a public space should be considered.”
Experts say public places like gardens, bridges or skywalks enclosed by high walls, though they provide a security cover to the structure, only deter women from entering such spaces.
While Mumbai’s first open-house meet to ideate might be a welcome change, it is the norm for planning cities the world over. In Canada, the process is continuous with the government even incorporating gender audits regularly to improve public spaces. In Vienna, considered a model city as far as gender mainstreaming in public spaces is concerned, the civic administration is a step ahead, making sure even their cemeteries are designed keeping women population in mind. The Vienna’s municipal department has designed benches, rest rooms and clear signages for better access across cemeteries after they found that the majority of mourners were elderly women who would visit there regularly.
Jyoti Mhapsekar of Stree Mukti Sanghatana says there is another crucial aspect of opening more spaces for women who constitute the unorganised sector. She cites the example of ragpickers who are often casually picked by police as suspects in cases of thefts or robbery. Most of them segregate garbage at footpaths or below flyovers, with no designated space for their activity. “When you design a city keeping space for the marginalised sections, you recognise their constitutional right to public space,” Mhapsekar says, adding that the responsibility for this could not be of a single agency.
“Every single aspect involves integration of several agencies. The fourth world conference on women held in Beijing 1995 had “Look at the world through the eyes of a woman” as the motto. It’s been over a decade, but cities like Mumbai are still to adopt it. Everything here is designed for a man. Take a simple example: the gap between the train and the platform is unsafe from security point of view, but even otherwise it is not planned from a woman’s point of view. At every stop, a pregnant woman has to jump. It may surprise our planners to know that in Europe, such minute health details are factored while designing public transport,” she states.
Sameera Khan, co-author of “Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets” offers a different perspective. Speaking of the city’s attitude of locking up spaces to protect from encroachers, she says it has only worsened the situation. “We need to open our public spaces to all people. In fact, instead of concentrating our energies on keeping the so-called ‘undesirables’ out, we need to focus on how to make our public spaces more inclusive to all, including women. My dream for Mumbai is a city where public spaces, public transport, public toilets and all sorts of public facilities are open 24/7,” Khan says.
The global vision
In Canada, buses stop between shelters at late hours to pick women commuters, with extra buses running late into the night for women. A probe panel headed by Justice Usha Mehra (retired), which was appointed to look into lapses in the public machinery that led to the December 16 gangrape in Delhi, had made an observation that the victim and her male friend had to board a private bus only after being refused by auto-rickshaw drivers.
In Germany, public spaces are classified according to gender usage. Even cities like Seoul, which face shortage of land, have equal facilities for boys and girls in playgrounds.
In Vienna, gender audits ensured jobs are equally divided between men and women so that people from both genders are comfortable accessing public spaces. For example, a woman traffic warden at city roads ensures women feel comfortable walking those stretches.
In Toronto, a rights group installed an open oven at one of the gardens, which was frequented by drug addicts. Now, families and women come in groups, use it and have a community outing.
Expert tips for Mumbai
Reduce fencing across gardens and parks, reduce the height of walls so that women feel comfortable entering them.
Put in better surveillance system in public spaces. According to BEST general manager O P Gupta, incidents of physical assault have come down in buses that have CCTV cameras.
Ensure bridges, subways have better visibility and that hoardings do not block their view. Ensure most spaces have some sort of human surveillance.
Most experts are of the view that hawkers play a key role in ensuring one feels safe at public spaces. They should not be driven out completely.
Patrolling and police chowkies have to be decided as per needs of a growing population and behaviour patterns of communities specific to locations.
Playgrounds need to be designed for women, and not just men. In case of shortage of land, the same ground can be opened for women during certain shifts.
Day shelters, hostels and rooms for working women should be part of the city’s planning.