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How urban planning can provide better safety to women

india Updated: Mar 10, 2014 01:59 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Women’s safety

On my last visit to London, I happened to take the Tube one late evening. It was past 11 pm. I was alone and not quite sure if it was the right thing to do. Back home in Delhi, travelling alone on public transport late at night is nothing short of calling for trouble. Probably that paranoia was working on my mind.

Before I could make an inquiry about the connecting routes, I heard a young woman, who had a few too many, struggling to explain to a Tube marshal where she had to go. “Don’t worry, we will get you home,” the marshal’s words to her comforted me. I got back to my apartment without an incident.

Women’s safety is a law and order challenge across the world and relatively safe cities like London are no exception. A 2011 survey by the End Violence against Women Coalition found that 28% women did not feel safe on London’s transport network. A lack of visible policing was a big concern. The Transport for London corroborated these findings in its own survey to report that 15% of women had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour on train and bus networks. But 90% of these incidents went unreported.

A multi-agency operation followed soon, resulting in 15 arrests in a single week. There was a 20% increase in the reporting of sexual offences on the transport network compared with the same period in 2012, the Guardian reported in October 2013. At least 2,000 officers were trained to deal in such cases. It was inspiring to see a government responding so fast.

“You have to start by learning from your facts. You need local evidence to establish the nature of the problem. Follow-up action should be fast,” says Anastasia Posadskaya-Vanderbeck, the global manager of the UN Women Safer Cities Global Initiative which took off in 2010 with pilot studies in five cities, including Delhi.

The initiative has already thrown up a few innovative results. The municipality of Quito in Ecuador, for example, has amended an ordinance to cover sexual violence in public spaces after receiving 10,000 letters under the Cartas de Mujeres (Letters from Women) campaign. Taking advantage of the high Internet availability in government-supported internet cafes, trained women and young girls in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro have used mobile phones to map safety risks in their neighbourhoods. Their inputs are used not only in policy-making but to provide on-the-spot solutions.

In 2010, Jagori launched the UN Safe City Initiative in Delhi by auditing five municipal wards to identify gender gaps in infrastructure and essential services. Public transport and streets were found to be the most unsafe spaces in the city. Unlit bus stops and subways, lack of public toilets for women were other big concerns.

The Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Planning and Engineering Centre formulated a set of guidelines on these suggestions in December 2012 and submitted them to the government. Designating spaces for hawkers as “eyes on the street”, creation of night shelters, re-designing bus stops, and making GPS mandatory for auto-rickshaws and taxis were among its many recommendations that still await follow-up action.

Long dark stretches of Delhi still remain unmanned. There may be more night buses now but their coverage and frequency remain unreliable. CCTV cameras are yet to be installed in public buses. The move to install GPS in auto-rickshaws is being resisted by the unions. Last month, the Delhi High Court asked the government to identify the harassment-prone areas on a crime map. The government drew a blank.

More than a law and order issue, gender violence needs to be tackled in the wider matrix of urban development. The brutal December 16 gang rape that underlined the vulnerability of women in our cities was a topic of raging debates on International Women’s Day last week. If only our governments show a fraction of that intensity in implementing the action plan for reforms. It’s been 15 months.