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Public spaces: Not designed for safety

mumbai Updated: Dec 23, 2011 02:05 IST
Aarefa Johari

Amrita Jain (name changed), a 26-year-old sales clerk at a departmental store nearly quit her job six months ago because of three drunk men near the Andheri (West) station.

Jain, a Kandivli resident, began working at the Andheri store a year ago, and after her nine-hour shift ended at 10pm, she would walk to the station and take a train home. Soon, she realised that her daily route was also a regular hangout for a group of young men, who would buy alcohol from a liquor shop near the station, drink in dark corners of the street, and then leer at women passing by.

“Because I was young and always alone, they began targeting me,” said Jain, who spent five tense and agonising months listening to lewd remarks and being followed to the station at least thrice a week. She would weave through the crowds and cross from one side of the road to another to avoid the men.

When her father intervened and told them off, two months later, the harassment stopped, for just three weeks. “Passersby were in too much of a hurry to help, and I was embarrassed to go to the police,” said Jain, who finally found help from her employer, who refused to let her quit and now makes sure a male colleague accompanies her to the station.

Jain’s trauma — and that of several other women in the city — could have been avoided if the area around the station was better lit and did not have a liquor shop so close to the public space frequented by women at night.

But when the civic body draws up development plans for spaces in the city, women’s safety rarely seems to be a priority. “Gender awareness is not present in any planning mechanism of the city, even though women make up half the city’s workforce,” said Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the city-based think tank, Urban Design Research Initiative, who describes gender-sensitive sites as spaces that are suitable to all. “If the authorities give licenses to liquor or lottery shops close to a railway station, women travelers will automatically feel unsafe.”

The safety and security apparatus provided by the city play a major role in determining how protected it’s citizens are. The HT-Akshara survey, for which 4,225 women across the city were interviewed, found that 95% of the respondents had faced harassment or assault. With regard to perception, more than half the women interviewed found most public areas to be unsafe.

Unfortunately, gender-sensitivity as a concept is virtually non-existent when it comes to infrastructure and planning. In Mumbai, several other aspects of poor-planning make it difficult for women to be at ease while using public spaces. Bylanes and subways are often poorly lit, illegal hawkers are rarely evicted and parking zones created near parks and other open spaces often create dark corners for eve-teasers to hide.

Two years ago, when Prabhadevi resident Sunita (name changed) went to a public toilet near her slum at night, she discovered a man standing on a boundary wall outside the toilet, peeping at her through a broken ventilator. When the non-profit organisation Akshara conducted a safety walk in her area this February, they also found that street lights were absent in slum areas, unauthorised parking was rampant, and water pipes protruding from the ground made it difficult for women to run away from a threatening situation.

Admitting that instances of eve-teasing in public toilets are a result of poor planning by a ward’s projects and maintenance departments, Juhu corporator Adolf D’Souza said: “Toilets are often constructed with cheap materials to cut down costs, resulting in broken windows and door hinges. But in this case, it is the duty of the ward office to repair them.”

In an ongoing study of the city’s open spaces, architect and researcher Neera Adarkar’s firm discovered that women find boundary walls along open spaces unsafe, and would prefer low parapets instead. “More middle and lower-middle class women are going for morning walks on tracks alongside boundary walls, and would feel safer in if the space was more interactive,” said Adarkar, who believes footpath railings on roads such as the ones along Churchgate and Metro theatre – meant to prevent pedestrians from walking on the main roads – can be perceived as a hindrance to women, who would have no escape route in case of an emergency. “If broader pavements are planned, there would be no need for a barricade,” said Adarkar.

Additional municipal commissioner Aseem Gupta insists that women’s safety is taken into account in plans for city spaces. “We try not to create spaces that are dark or not visible from an open space. Women’s safety is discussed in our meetings,” said Gupta.

Joshi, however, believes that the problem needs to be addressed at a deeper level in order to truly bring about change. “Gender awareness needs to be brought into the regular curriculum of architecture and engineering students, so that they can create plans that are gender-sensitive from scratch,” he said.