Her/She in Indian Urban Spaces

Author: Hephzibah Lakhanpal, Research Associate, Inclusive Cities Centre (ICC), NIUA

The year 2015 marked an important landmark to forge international community’s advocacy efforts for gender equality. UN's Sustainable Development Goals 5 (gender equality), 11 (make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, and resilient), and 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) support safe public spaces for all genders (peace, liberty, and justice for all). These UN goals highlight the necessity of adopting and institutionalizing a gender-responsive approach to development. It is a much needed response in the scenario where women lag behind men on most global economic parameters. The labour participation rate for women in India is 18% compared to 82% for men based on World Inequality Report released in 2022 . Voice and autonomy have often been uneven across gender groups, with advances in the enabling environment yet not entirely translated into reality on ground. Besides there is a wide gender gap in accessing public spaces in Indian cities - access to streets, public transportation facilities and open areas at large. Focus on accessibility and safety in the plans and design of public spaces would narrow this gap and facilitate a more equitable access to economic opportunities and social participation. There is, thus, the pressing need to adopt a gendered approach (women’s perspective and needs) in the critical urban design elements.

Gender approach is important in planning public- and para-transit services as women are amongst the major users of public transport services especially buses, metros, and trip chaining. The accessibility of women to transport services can be improved through measures such as facilitating curb heights for sidewalks and pathways and ease of using strollers, etc. Women, however, continue to have inferior access to both public and private means of transportation despite overwhelming burden of household care and domestic responsibilities even in urban areas. Women travels often are multi-modal, multi-purpose and multi-destinations due to the combination of work and household related purposes. Oftentimes, traveling to work, picking up a child or dropping them off before work, buying household items, etc is part of daily chores accompanied with other responsibilities. In statistical research done by Anvita Anand and Geetam Tiwari, they found that travel budget of a household is an important indicator of the sustainability of income-generating activities within a household. The average car-owning households spend about 10–11% of its income on travel, while an average non-car-owning household spend about 3–5% of its income on travel.

The unlit and unkept access paths to public toilets and poor maintenance of the sanitation facilities are a concern for women safety. Pink toilets are an emerging concept in cities but maintenance and operations of community/public toilets is still a challenge in the cities. Poor access to safe public toilets leads to the practice amongst young women and adolescent girls to have low water intake, toilet avoidance and bladder control. This impacts especially their sexual and menstrual health and hygiene. According to a study conducted by Action Aid on “Public Toilets for Young Urban Women 2 ”, young women in cities have highlighted the challenge of using poorly maintained toilets which offer no privacy and reported feeling unsafe and awkward since there are no safety mechanisms in place. Another concern for the women is the lack of incinerators or pad machines within community and public toilets. Availability of such facilities for disposal of sanitary napkins will help avoid the need to flush them or dispose them in the open, and contribute to better maintenance of public toilets. This underlines the need for a gendered approach to designing toilets for women as part of enabling and creating accessible services and facilities for all.

Lastly, the access to recreation spaces. According to research conducted in UK cities, girls have stopped using parks and recreational spaces in early phases of their teenage, as compared to boys. This is due to disproportionate accessibility and social barriers faced by girls in common facilities since the use by the other gender groups is intimidating at times. Simple use of such spaces for relaxing time or sports is a hurdle for girls, which is the case often with fewer girls than boys visible at these places. This is evidence of psycho-social barriers to accessing some of the public spaces. An example of addressing such psycho-social barriers through gender segregation is practice of designating coaches for women in metros like the Delhi Metro (as pointed by Dr. Shilpa Phadke; Researcher and Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences)3 . The practice helps create a sense of freedom and expressivity for women. The first coach in Delhi metro is reserved for women with at least 43 seats and 318 standings available. On the contrary, when compared to other coaches women feel bound psychologically especially less conscious of male gaze and social normative boundaries.

The safety perceptions cannot be emphasized enough, especially in the perspective of women being victims of violence within indoor and outdoor spaces. The onus of safety for women is often left on them, whether it is access to work, gain education or entertaining themselves. Within private or public urban spaces, crowded spaces, no visibility, low lit areas can deter women from equal access to these spaces.

A utopian city should make all gender groups feel safe in the city and is easily achievable by conscious design elements such as enhanced visibility, marked escape routes, adequate lighting, and liveliness at busy intersections at critical spots especially near construction sites, near underpasses, etc. In cities, it is necessary to mandate that the spatial planning process include people’s participation and fair representation from marginalized communities particularly women. Existing municipal laws need to be amended to integrate participatory planning and design processes that treat women and girls as empowered partners, with shared decision-making. Gender-sensitive planning of physical variables such as space and illumination, as well as social aspects such as awareness and capacity building, must be mandatory for access to and eventual work in urban environments. For example, Mumbai's civic government has set aside land in numerous wards for the construction of multifunctional residences for working women near commercial areas and educational institutions, which would include childcare and entrepreneurship training centres. These centres are strategically located in high-density areas, such as markets and near train stations. Urban planning could widen its reach by ensuring that more areas are safe, allowing women to access more spaces. Some key interventions which may contribute to creating gender-sensitive spaces includes, collection of disaggregated data collection by gender-groups to encourage women’s participation in the planning process, carrying out neighbourhood/ward/city level safety audits; engaging women' organizations and advocacy groups in assessment of the needs for services in local communities; and capacity building of ULBs to design, plan and implement programmes and projects with a gender- responsive approach.




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