Late one night, Sunita (name changed) groped her way through the cramped by-lanes of Prabhadevi’s Vani Chawl towards the row of 16 ladies toilets shared by more than 500 families in the chawl.
A minute later, startled by a sound outside her cubicle, she whirled around just in time to see a man’s face disappear from the slits in the little toilet window. Sunita cried out in shame and alarm, and in the investigations that ensued, chawl residents discovered that the voyeur had it easy. A short boundary wall behind the women’s toilets was at just the right height for an adult to stand and peek through the windows.
This incident is two years old, but it is only three months ago that a group of 30 women from Prabhadevi’s slums and chawls took up the issue of women’s safety through a set of ‘safety walks’ in the locality. These walks are part of a larger safety audit that Akshara, a 16-year-old women’s organisation, has piloted in Prabhadevi. Conducted directly by local women, the audit consists of interviews with women from various age groups in the area about their feelings of safety in various spaces.
The safety walks, done over four sessions, were aimed at marking out unsafe areas on a map. Though the audit report is yet to be prepared, the NGO plans to submit their map to civic authorities with a list of suggestions.
“The biggest fear women have is of violence, a fear that debilitates them and often governs choices they make about their careers,” said Nandita Gandhi, co-director of Akshara, who identifies unsafe areas as everything from lanes with low lighting and corners where people can hide to empty ladies coaches in late night trains.
Taking HT on a special safety walk around Prabhadevi before Women’s Day, Vani Chawl resident Madhuri Pawar pointed out the problem areas she helped map.
In the slums of Ganesh Nagar and Kamgar Nagar, she said, the biggest concern is the lack — and often absence — of streetlights. The ‘lanes’ separating one row of homes from another are barely three-feet wide, full of dangling electricity wires above and uncovered water pipes. A few blocks away is a foot over-bridge across the bustling Appasaheb Maratha Marg that women refuse to use because of the drug peddlers who frequent this area. This bridge leads to Chavni Galli, a middle-class locality known for a rape that occurred 20 years ago and for the groups of boys who linger outside the street’s municipal school and tease its girls. The only open ground here has no lights, making women passers by uncomfortable after sundown.
“To top it all, the closest police station is a 40-minute walk away in Dadar,” said Pawar, 34, a home tutor and a trained Akshara “counsellor”, who listens to problems of other local women and seeks help for them when required. “Almost every woman here has had unpleasant experiences, but they prefer silence over scandal.” Akshara may conduct safety audits in a few more areas in the city, but Gandhi hopes more organisations and citizen’s groups take them up as a movement.