And I Thought Public Spaces are Meant for Everyone!

Public spaces in India lack even the most basic amenities, making them unsafe for women and the vulnerable. Priya Varadarajan explores different obstacles and solutions – and recounts a very personal tale of what it means to be a woman in today’s India.

Most public spaces in India are designed for men. Whether they are streets, transport, municipal utilities, or workspaces – they are designed by and for men, rather than for people. At the same time, nowadays we have more women on the streets, across the globe, and specifically in India, who need to use urban infrastructure to get from one place to the other.

So how do we expect women to navigate through urban spaces comfortably when all the urban planning and designing is done by men? Are women able to move around seamlessly? Are they feeling safe? How can we develop gender-inclusive spaces and what is a gender-inclusive space in the first place?

For me, a gender-inclusive space is one that does not let me worry about how I, as a woman, can occupy it. This is a fundamental point: women are usually expected to navigate through, rather than actively take up public spaces. Further, the infrastructural design of the city should make anyone feel equal. Any individual staying in a public space should feel as comfortable as a man. While men usually are able to roam freely in most places, women, elders, the disabled and children feel vulnerable in them, as their needs remain unconsidered. Unfortunately, as urban planning and designing are largely done and financed by men, the argument on why spaces need to be designed for all people does not receive sufficient recognition yet.

The Condition of Public Spaces: Inside – Feminine, Outside – Masculine

In India, most roads are deprived of light and accessible footpaths. Not just women will find many roads dark, desolate and dangerous. Depending on the time of the year, most places need to be lit by 6:30 PM. People are still outdoors at this time, on their way back home, or leaving to be elsewhere. Streetlights are a basic requirement for safety in the public sphere, especially for women. To better understand the urgency, a recent article in “The Times of India”, revealed that the road the rapists of Nirbhaya took in December 2012 is still not lit today! This is why it is so important to plan and design the right light and the right distance between one light source to the other. Further, roads should be well lit, especially in emptier places, commercial locations as well as public parks and intersections. A similar problem is lacking pavements: if I am venturing out on a dark night, either I can fall victim to a sexual predator or a scary pothole!

Another issue is the insufficient access to public toilets, a space, even brave me, is very scared to go to. There are two main problems with public toilets in India: firstly, they are quite non-existent when you are looking for them. Secondly, when you do find one, you do not want to use it. So, for women, who cannot ease themselves just about anywhere, staying outdoors or long-distance drives become a nightmare. As a solution, more toilets with running water should be built and made available in all public spaces.

Sexual Harassment: Woman – Stays Indoors, Man – Goes Outdoors

Regarding public transport, most buses and trains are a huge threat to women. Research done by Durga India in 2015 found that about 90 per cent of Indian women who travel with public transport have felt threatened, and about 70 per cent have experienced abuse. Don’t these places belong to all? Women are touched, groped, masturbated on, and breathed into in these places! If this was not bad enough, even bus and train staff members are known to harass female passengers.

As one solution, there needs to be more sensitivity building for respectable behaviour towards women. Also, people should feel responsible for each other. Training of transport staff, strict implementation of the sexual harassment laws, and active bystanders can make a huge difference. Furthermore, transport vehicles should have designated spaces for men and women as well as a panic button to raise an alarm when required. Over-crowding in buses also leads to issues such as theft and loss of personal belongings. Trains and buses should run more frequently and restrict the number of people they take.

Sexual harassment of women is not only an issue in public transportation but in public spaces in general. Hence, strong action and even more strong messaging is critical. Women have been considered the “other” for far too long, and are still not welcome in most places that are dominated by men. I remember walking up to a man who was catcalling out to me in Bangalore once and asked him why he was doing this. To my utter astonishment, he told me that I was using his space as if he was entitled to be in the streets, and my responsibility was to be at home. Such is the deep entrenchment of patriarchy that still fails to fade away, no matter how hard we try.

Strict law implementation and community building among youth could perhaps reduce this problem in the years to come. In general, more women should occupy public spaces to demand better infrastructure and greater safety.

Workspaces: Woman – Makes Food, Man – Earns Food

Patriarchy has also made its way into our corporate board rooms. Unequal treatment in the workplace reveals itself by women not being paid on par with men as well as denied opportunities and promotions based on gender. Sexism in the workplace has been normalised and workplaces have become a “man” thing in India. Yet, how can India build businesses and entire economies, and solve its problems, when half of its population is excluded from contributing to the solutions in a meaningful way?

Parity in pay, gender justice in hiring, and equal opportunities for people of all genders and sexualities are mandatory – corporations should be looking for the right talent, not for the right gender.

Finally, if urban planning is done with keeping gender justice in mind, it definitely is a win-win situation. Improved safety and mobility in public spaces can completely change women’s lives and enable them to contribute even more to society. As a result, it will improve women’s relationships with their cities and help them gain independence, which contributes to better societies for all.

Founder at Durga India
Priya holds deep empathy and connects with the vulnerable, particularly with women and girls who are survivors of gender-based violence and abuse. For the last 10 years, she has been running an organisation of her own in Bangalore, called Durga, through which she supports women and girls in fighting sexual harassment in public spaces. Durga has been celebrated for their work as pioneers in fixing panic alarms in BMTC buses in Bangalore, and were invited by the AAP Government to replicate the project in Delhi.

Priya also works with the Azim Premji Philanthropy as the lead for Gender Justice and Disabilities issues. A Chartered Accountant by Profession, Priya has spent the first few years of her career at Deloitte, EY and Infosys. An avid reader of the different waves of Feminism, student of a Masters in Gender and Women Studies, Tedx Speaker and traveller, Priya tries to learn Carnatic music (intermittently) in her spare time. She feels she is able to follow every dream purely because of her dedicated fitness walks and exercise and the Universal Energy – Reiki!
Priya Varadarajan
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