Fear of unsafe public spaces erodes women’s autonomy - Hindustan Times
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Fear of unsafe public spaces erodes women’s autonomy

Jan 27, 2024 10:05 PM IST

The study argues that as the idea of the unsafe city has taken hold, women have been forced to restrict their own conduct in public while facing restraints

Only 14% of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence have sought help and 77% have kept their suffering to themselves, according to the National Family Health Survey-5. Despite the silence on these forms of violence that occur at home or work, post the 2012 Delhi gang rape, attention has been fixed on public violence, particularly in cities. These issues were studied by the GendV project based at Cambridge University, led by Dr Nandini Gooptu of Oxford University, and conducted by field researchers in India.

Women have been cast as vulnerable and in need of paternalistic protection and guardianship of the State and family. (HT File) PREMIUM
Women have been cast as vulnerable and in need of paternalistic protection and guardianship of the State and family. (HT File)

Dr Gooptu said, “As cities become more modern but also more unsafe, we found that this fear of public urban violence has led to ever more tight control, coercion, even abuse, of women, and this is causing significant harm to women’s mental and physical well-being.” Field researcher Rupal Anand, a student, adds, “I was struck by how many young women spoke passionately about the pain and anxiety caused by micro-regulation of their life”.

Gurugram was the site for this study, as it epitomises India’s techno-urban modernism and it is also perceived as an unsafe city, in which violence is thought to be perpetrated by so-called backward local residents or migrant workers, and exacerbated by the lack of safe lighting, transport infrastructure or urban planning strategies. The fear of violence as an external threat has led to the setting up of an extensive system of private security and digital surveillance and campaigns for better urban infrastructure to ensure women’s safety.

Public policy concerns about women’s safety have seen a decisive shift in recent years. Women have been cast as vulnerable and in need of paternalistic protection and guardianship of the State and family. The study argues that as the idea of the unsafe city has taken hold, women have been forced to restrict their own conduct in public, while also facing restraints on their mobility and behaviour. This curtails their personal freedom and erodes their right to a life of dignity and autonomy.

Young women who live with their parents are enjoined, according to the study, to be cautious, notably by wearing modest clothes and make-up, curtailing their mobility in the city and restricting their social life. They describe feeling a constant emotional onslaught and mental stress, being torn between a sense of love, duty and loyalty towards their family, and a desire to make their own choices. Women are also forced to be secretive about their social life. When these experiences expose them to danger and risks, such as abusive partners or health issues arising from intimate relations, they are unable to deal with these safely in discussions with their families.

At the same time, due to the instilling of fear about safety, many women have internalised a sense of terror about male violence in public spaces. Women describe being perennially fearful when moving around the city. Ritika (name changed) described how this had left her with a lack of confidence and turned her into an overly reticent person, inhibited her capacities and led her to dial down her ambitions, affecting her life chances. The study notes that well-intentioned campaigns for women’s public safety often emphasise the threat of gendered violence, with notions such as “rape capital”. The study argues that the unintended consequences of such projections are twofold. One is to frighten women and force them to discipline themselves, with negative implications for their freedom; the other is to fuel their family’s anxiety and intensify patriarchal control.

Being over-protective about women’s everyday conduct, says the study, led to their lives being affected with enduring negative consequences, not only by diminishing their autonomy and sense of self but also by breeding distrustful and damaging relationships, as well as impairing mental and physical health — all with far-reaching broader consequences for public health, youth well-being and inter-generational dynamics in society. The study recommends that generating awareness about these issues must accompany any public campaign so that attention is not only focused on law and order and infrastructure as solutions but also on the private sphere of relationships and the impact on young women’s lives.

The views expressed are personal

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