Sustainable Cities & Communities: Increasing Accessibility for Women

 

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Bency Ramakrishnan is student of Law and Public Policy. My intention to bring about a change in the society has always been guided by my strongest belief in the right to equality, from socio-economic and gender perspectives. I wish to witness a society around me that is not a mute spectator to wrongdoings but one which takes it upon itself to defend and stand for the rights of the others.

Sustainable Cities & Communities: Increasing Accessibility for Women

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

― Jane Jacobs

These lines underscore the city life in Mumbai. So while 3.5 billion people live in the cities today, the city of Mumbai also is home to over 20 million people that makes it one of the most populated cities in the world. With a density such as 83,900, excessive strain on resources should not come as a surprise.1  By 2020, Mumbai will have an estimated 24 million people with the highest population density in the world.

In light of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, the role and responsibility of civic administration in creating secure public places assumes more importance than it ever has. The goals that have been outlined, look at issues ranging from ensuring access to affordable housing to accessibility to public spaces concerning the vulnerable groups of women, children and persons with disabilities. The entire Sustainable Development Goal programme is drafted with the intent of attaining a sustainable mode of development in an urban setting and this is because even international bodies recognize the crucial role that cities play as urban centres for assimilation and laying a foundation for the growth of all the elements that increasingly are becoming part of cities.

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A pressing issue that has been raised is to do with safe and affordable access to transport systems. This has a magnified impact on women as for instance, if a woman does not get the required access to a transport system when in an emergency situation of pregnancy, it can cause permanent disability and even death. And discrimination adds to these despairing conditions. In Mumbai’s context, local trains that are considered as the lifeline, also have less number of compartments meant for women even with a growing number of women taking up various career paths that require them to travel to and from town. This will require changes to be made at the infrastructural level so as to increase the frequency of trains and include more tracks to run additional trains meant only for women commuters.

A counter argument has also found many supporters which claim that measures such as ‘ladies specials’ are band-aids on bullet holes. This argument is valid if one were to consider such measures to be more of a protectionist one rather than that of one determined by basic right to access.

Shilpa Phadke, a sociologist, working on the Gender and Space Project, states that while it is necessary to ensure a safe environment for women, the more important goal should be to allow women to more actively be a part of these very public places than remain ‘protected’ from them. The point raised is that although ladies only trains may be beneficial, they need to be coupled with rights that provide equal protection. She stated in the blog – Ladies Specials: Gender and the Public Space – for The World Bank by Darshana Patel, “What we might seek then is an equality of risk – that is not that women should never be attacked but that when they are, they should receive a citizen’s right to redress and their right to be in that space be unquestioned.” Since the public sphere is ridden with a strong hierarchical structure, how best a woman can deal with issues as and when they arise needs deliberation.

The other issue which finds a very important position in the list of goals is that public spaces be safe so as to enable women to access and enjoy these platforms without any fear of getting harassed or assaulted. The civic administration bears a great deal of responsibility in ensuring that this is made possible. Because every infrastructural facility around us has some or the other gap in terms of providing utmost utility to a woman, it points to the stark absence of designing these facilities keeping women in mind. The important question here is whether our urban planners, policy makers, civic and security administration take into account the fears and perceptions of women while designing our roads, bridges, open spaces, grounds and parks.

As per the 2011 census, Mumbai has a population of 1.27 crore, of which 45 per cent comprises women. Of the total 57.41 lakh women, around eight lakh are working women. Over 20 lakh commute daily to places like schools, shops and establishments. The surveys and audits conducted by rights groups point to a direct relation between gender equality, safety and urban planning and identifying gender mainstreaming in public spaces as  an important strategy toward public security.

A welcome change has been the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s initiative in 2012 to call for suggestions to its Development Plan for Mumbai 2014-2034 and this does seem to be a step forward in making urban planning more inclusive by means of getting all diverse stakeholders on a common platform to deliberate and ideate.

In places like Canada and Vienna, however, this process is not a new one. They constantly engage in processes to make their cities better in terms of encouraging gender mainstreaming. Analyzing minute characteristics of ease in transport in local trains in Mumbai and designing infrastructure in such a way as to make instances of harassment and abuse in BEST disappear must automatically figure as priority items for the administration.

A different take is introduced by Sameera Khan, co-author of “Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets” in an article by The Indian Express. According to her, public spaces need to be open to all people. Our energies should be focused on how to make public spaces inclusive to all, including women. Her dream is for Mumbai to be a city where public spaces, public transport, public toilets and all kinds of public facilities are open round the clock.

This work attempts to mark a major shift from the conservative idea of women only stepping out for some purpose/work to the idea of stepping out just for pleasure and the joy of it. As is rightly pointed out in a review of ‘Why Loiter?’ by Anjali Arondekar in Biblio, the achievement in employing a restrictive language of protectionism doesn’t ensure safety for women but rather an attitude that casts women as victims who trespass into ‘wrong places,’ at the ‘wrong times,’ wearing the ‘wrong clothes’.

The protection and/or safety of women has for long been used as a litmus test of a nation’s progress and maturity. Effective steps such as lighting up all corners of the streets and have a public transport system that is efficient and runs 24 hours will transform the nature of women’s access to public spaces. Individual police zones must also conduct sensitization drives and civil society groups’ contribution by means of standing up for themselves and others’ rights will also go a long way in ensuring safer public spaces.

There is a direct result of women’s lack of influence or control over decision-making, social networks, information, personal mobility or secure housing and employment, many of which are mediated by socially constructed gender differences on how safe and resilient women actually are in a society.

It is therefore imperative that women be provided the opportunity to voice their needs and be in a position to make decisions on how their issues should be addressed in their communities as individuals and as collective organizations.

Read more about our curated discussions on SDG 11 here.

 

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