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No country for women

The idea of safe public spaces faced renewed scrutiny after the 31 December mass molestation in Bengaluru

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

Bhuvaneshwari M., who now works in an IT firm in Hyderabad, has built a mental map of the various cities she has lived in. Chennai, where she spent her childhood, has been the safest; Pune was safe but poor public transport limited mobility; Bengaluru was fairly safe till 9pm; Hyderabad is safer but socially conservative.

She is not the only woman carrying along a mental map wherever she goes. The issue of safe and equal access to public spaces faced renewed scrutiny following the 31 December mass molestation that is alleged to have taken place in Bengaluru. Women such as 28-year-old Bhuvaneshwari fear sexual harassment and violence while walking on the street, using public transport or commuting to work. It’s a fear that not only restricts a woman’s right to public spaces, but also limits her freedom in deciding whether and where to work.

Freedom with restrictions

A look at the National Crime Records Bureau’s report for 2015 shows that no Indian city is safe (see box). The conventional understanding of a safe city is a place where the number of reported crimes against women is low, and they have the basic right to use public spaces as they choose.

According to the UN Women website, “A safe city is one where women and girls can enjoy public spaces and public life without fear of being that promotes equal opportunities for men and women in all the spheres of social, economic, cultural and political life."

The risk of encountering violence, especially on account of gender, is used to justify the narrowing choices women have when living in a city. Safety becomes the overarching focus—in decisions of comportment, clothing, work, living spaces and leisure activities. However, the conversation is slowly changing. In his short film That Day After Everyday, Anurag Kashyap tells the story of three working women and the troubles they face every day travelling from home to their place of work— it addresses their constant sense of anxiety. Towards the end, instead of waiting to be rescued, they fight back—initially by fighting their fears, and then by thrashing the men. The same theme was also the focus of a new video by Elle India that went viral last month, which shows the discomfort that women feel when it comes to society’s expectations of what parts of our bodies should or should not be exposed.

“The way society is constructed, there is constant monitoring by people outside on what women wear and where women go. We put self-boundaries on our choices— protecting ourselves from violence, trying to be safe, not realizing that in reality there are no places which are safe," says queer feminist activist Pramada Menon.

Bhuvaneshwari says that she carries memories of offensive behaviour from each city where she’s lived—from inappropriate touches, to men masturbating in public. “If we narrate these incidents to our families, rules will be made stricter for us," she says.

Venkatalakshmi Jayanthi, a 27-year-old working with a consulting firm in Chennai, says the city has been kind to her, barring one or two “minor" incidents of inappropriate touching and lewd comments, she has felt safe. “Chennai is a conservative city. You will not see a lot of people on the roads after midnight. I wouldn’t take public transport after 11pm, but I can drive back home even post midnight without fear," she says.

South Indian cities emerged on top for quality of life and safety in a ranking of cities released in 2016 by human resources consulting firm Mercer. Hyderabad offered the best quality of life, according to the report. Bengaluru, Pune and Chennai ranked high too because of a variety of factors, including relatively low crime rates.

But Sheela Prasad, a professor at the Centre for Regional Studies at the University of Hyderabad’s School of Social Science, says: “Until recently, we thought Bengaluru was very cosmopolitan, modern and safe. You just need one or two incidents to topple these rankings. Cities in the south generally are safer, but that could also be because these cities are still conservative, changes there haven’t been drastic and women have set self-imposed boundaries."

Freedom within boundaries is a choice many women are forced to make, but as film-maker and writer Paromita Vohra says, “Until we create a language of accepting that pleasure is a part of a woman’s life, until we acknowledge woman’s right to freedom in private lives, it is going to be hard to implement the same in the public spaces."

Going beyond the safety net

The transformation of sleepy cities into global metropolises has contributed to a sense of insecurity and increased crime. “The making of any urban economy generally doesn’t take into account everyone, including old residents, or the poor. Unlike Bengaluru, change in Hyderabad or Chennai has been slower. In Bengaluru, people migrated in and locals felt alienated. It is better to have the change spread over time, giving people time to accept it," says Prasad.

An incident of harassment in public spaces usually leads to an increased level of discussion about the safety of women, including the way cities are planned, the state of public transport, and law enforcement. After the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, women’s safety became a political issue, even featuring in election manifestos. Every time a high-profile crime takes place, there is a demand for CCTVs. But Sonal Shah, senior manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in Delhi, says: “Creating a safe city is neither a one-time activity nor action. It is a continuous process involving planning, design, enforcement, legal redressal, social campaigns, civil society and community participation. Urban planning and design can create the conditions to discourage incidents of sexual harassment as well as enable inviting, comfortable public spaces for women."

She believes that while notions of safety have come to dominate discussions on making Indian cities gender sensitive, planners end up focusing only on parts of the problem.

“Urban planners, designers and engineers, even if well-meaning, have an inadequate understanding of how women travel, how they use public spaces differently, and their infrastructure needs. Our urban planning and road departments do not have gender experts who can bring these issues to the fore. The lack of public toilets is one such issue," says Shah.

Inadequate public transport system in cities such as Pune result in working women renting places close to where they work or in areas that are not secluded. “Women in Pune have created their own safety net by identifying safe areas. With so many software companies and such bad public transport, women choose places close to market areas because those are safe, but that also means they end up paying more," says Swati Suresh Dyahadroy, an assistant professor in the department of women’s studies at the Savitribai Phule Pune University.

The heated discussions on safe public spaces after 2012 led to some changes within the corporate world. Many large BPO firms such as Genpact put safe transport policies in place wherein the last employee being dropped or the first employee being picked up cannot be a woman. Genpact has around 2,000 taxis for its employees, 31% (16,691) of whom are women. “The women we have hired are here because of their talent. If we want to retain this talent, we have to ensure their safety. We put in a lot of time and effort for the safety of women," says Vidya Srinivasan, senior vice-president (IT, infrastructure and risk) at Genpact. From setting up security patrols to monitor cabs to locking the office gates at night in winter (as a safety measure to avoid any kind of brawl between the office employees and anyone roaming around outside the premises), Genpact has introduced various measures to ensure the safety of its women employees, she adds.

Though these efforts have helped retain women in the workforce, the conversation is still focused on protection, on threats of violence, and not on women’s right to public spaces. Campaigns and movements like #IWillGoOut and Why Loiter? that are generating interest on social media are small steps in the arduous trek that may in the distant future lead to safe public spaces for women.

City limits


Delhi reported the highest number of rapes in 2015, followed by Mumbai (712).


Jodhpur had the highest rate of rapes per 100,000 population, followed by Delhi at 11.6.

Source: National Crime Records Bureau’s 2015 report

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