Friday, 28 March 2014

Designing Gender Friendly Cities

Photo Source: openIDEO
An Academic Congress on Understanding Gender was held in Lady Shri Ram College from March 5-7, 2014 and it was occasion to not only learn and debate ideas of gender, violence and societal norms and pressures but equally important, an arena to unlearn frequently propagated myths about women’s safety.
Safe City Dialogues by Shikha Trivedy of NDTV, a short documentary which captured the urgent need for city plans to have a gendered perspective cracked wide open a number of these long cherished and often invoked myths.
It began by questioning whether gentrification made cities safer. In the 1990’s there were many mills in operation within the city of Bombay. These mills employed a large number of women. It was the presence of these migrant, often lower class and caste women returning home from the late shift on the local trains late at night that normalized seeing women of all classes out and about in the city even very late at night. Far from the often invoked maxim that the only way to keep women safe in big bad cities is to have them safely home during daylight hours, the story of the women mill workers is proof that the only way to make a city women friendly, is to have them as a constant presence in all public spaces at all times. When the mills closed, these women disappeared from city making all women more susceptible to becoming victims of crimes. 
Though the mills closed, the abandoned factories remained in varying stages of decay. Abandoned buildings and areas are breeding grounds for the mushrooming of criminal and undesirable elements. A failure to repurpose these spaces make them hunting grounds for committing crimes against women without anyone on the street noticing.  The documentary recounts the case of a woman photo journalist who was raped in one of these abandoned mills and no one could hear her screams on the roads outside. 

Equally imperiled are the low income women relocated to distant colonies more akin to high-rise slums with poor sanitary facilities and unknown neighbours and neighbourhoods. Their harsher realities include fearing letting their daughters out of the house even for school and a fear of going to the dimly if at all lit, voyeur prone public washrooms at night. Young men travel freely in the narrow alleys between these colonies, while the young women remain trapped inside their homes to emerge only to be the object of harassment.

When cities are planned without keeping in mind the needs of different genders, they become more dangerous instead of safer for women. Equally dangerous are measures that give you a veneer of security without any actual safety. Higher gates and walls immediately give off the illusion of fortification and therefore safety but the reality is chilling. Where once a woman had many options of escaping danger running through the open maidans of Bombay, she must now skirt around their tall boundary walls and often meet with high gates. Thus the security measure has actually reduced her chances of making an escape.

We have to start a dialogue in which women are an integral part not only of the vision of a city but are also consulted in the making of this vision. An article by Clare Foran recounts the successes that city administrators in Vienna have had by designing laws that consciously try to benefit men and women equally. The goal of “Gender  main-streaming” or a “Fair Shared City” policies as they now prefer have in on instance made it possible for public parks to be shared equally by both boys and girls where once their utilization by girls was falling.

Our vision must shift from one designed to keep out the undesirables to one which aims to attract more and more desirables. The need is for better not more policing, more toilets, more public transport, more night shelters at major transport hubs. Gender sensitive improvements to infrastructure make a city more livable and an equally accessible space for all its citizens.

By Gayatri Verma

No comments:

Post a Comment