Insights and Analysis

Her Right to the City: Must Women Tread in Fear?

February 5, 2020

By Nandita Baruah

As India begins to reap the dividends from decades of investment in women’s empowerment, a growing number of women and girls are venturing into urban public spaces, be it for education, recreation, employment, or simply to loiter. But the lack of safety and the fear of harassment and violence that women and girls routinely encounter in cities show that India needs to do more to ensure that public spaces are conceived and designed for women’s safe and equitable use.

Commuters at Mumbai Central Train Station. (Photo: Conor Ashleigh / The Asia Foundation)

India today is rapidly urbanizing, and the general prediction is that the urban population will double by 2050. This has not been a planned process. It is largely an outcome of cities and urban centers trying to accommodate a demographic bulge, caused by rural-to-urban and interurban migration, by expanding city boundaries to encompass previously semi-urban or rural spaces. This unplanned urban expansion is challenging public infrastructure and governance at all levels, including public-service delivery, city financing, safety and security, and overall livability.

In response to this complex challenge, the national Ministry of Urban Development, in its 2015 Smart Cities Project, developed a set of standards for livable cities, comprising 79 indicators, in 15 categories, grouped under four pillars of comprehensive urban development: (1) institutional development, (2) social development, (3) economic development, and (4) physical development.

A comprehensive framework for livable and equitable cities is a laudable undertaking, but it is important to understand that the livability indicators are mutually dependent and cannot be addressed in silos. The Safety and Security indicator, for example, which falls under the Social Development pillar, is inevitably entangled with Transportation and Mobility, Housing and Inclusiveness, and Public Open Spaces, indicators that fall under the Physical Development pillar.

This entanglement of safety and security with the built environment of the city is not just of academic interest: it is a central issue for women and other marginalized groups. Freedom of movement and equitable access to public goods such as education and employment are basic human rights. The lack of safety and the fear of harassment and violence that women and girls routinely encounter in public spaces and on public transport prevent them from exercising these basic rights, excluding them from the economic, social, and political life of the community and stunting their personal and professional growth.

(Photo: Karl Grobl / The Asia Foundation)

Acting on this concern will require targeted affirmative action from government institutions, private- and public-sector players, and communities. City planners and city governments need to actively collaborate with resident-welfare associations, market associations, vendor groups, youth groups, and civil society organizations to create smart cities that are built to be safe for women.

A key step will be to ensure that city-planning procedures, policies, and blueprints are not gender agnostic. All urban development initiatives—be they the Smart City project or the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation—must have a well-defined strategy to ensure women’s safety in urban spaces. Strategic interventions like better lighting of streets and public spaces, safer and easier access to public transport, gender-sensitive community policing, gender-inclusive land-use planning, improved vigilance on streets and in public recreational spaces, and safer public facilities like toilets and shelters for women and the marginalized are some obvious points of action to make “smart cities” that are also safe cities for women.

Finally, all of this will require us to address the underlying social and cultural norms that legitimize male power, validate continued discrimination against women, and create structures and societies that are inherently tilted in favor of men. Cities are the growth engine of a country. If an entire class of the population is unable to participate in the life of the city, the nation’s overall economic and social well-being will suffer. Redefining the social norms of masculinity and femininity and establishing government policies that apply these new norms will be the ultimate game changer, and the beginning of a new India.

Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in India. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation 

Related locations: India
Related programs: Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality
Related topics: Women's Rights and Personal Security


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