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How Safe Are Public Spaces For Women?

Talking about women safety, situation in Delhi is still as vulnerable as it was 10 years back

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

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Of hundreds of cases of crime against women, this year three landmark judgement in cases needs special mention. The first verdict was by a city trial court in Pune, which awarded the capital punishment to the three accused in the gangrape and murder of Pune software professional Nayana Pujari, by the cab driver and the security guard of her company. Second Verdict was in the Bilkis Bano case, who was and her eight family members killed, including her three year old daughter, by a mob during 2002 Gujarat riots. Last one was the pronouncement of death sentence in Nirbhaya case, which had shocked the collective conscience of the whole nation and became the watershed moment in India's discourse on public safety and mobility.

The case of  Varnika Kundu, daughter of a senior IAS office, who was stalked by the son of BJP leader has once again highlighted the fact that our streets still remain vulnerable for women, especially during night. If a daughter of a bureaucrat finds it so difficult to find justice, it will dampen the spirit of many girls who are constantly facing such incidences. It has been five years of  Nirbhaya case. Government has changed in centre and the state. As India is talking about creating 100 smart cities, have we been able to ensure safe public spaces for women?

Talking about women safety, situation in Delhi is still as vulnerable as it was 10 years back. As per the data by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released in August 2016, nearly 3.27 lakh cases of crime against women were reported across the country. Of these over 1.3 lakh were sexual offences. The number does not reflect unreported cases.

Still given the high crime rates against women, the number of women in our police force is just 6.44 per cent of the total 17 lakh police force in the country. There are just 548 all-women police stations in the country, out of a total of over 15,000 police stations and rate of conviction in rape cases are just 29 per cent.  Lack of sensitising of the police force makes it all the more difficult for the women to report such incident. The Nirbhaya Fund, started in 2015, has been allocated Rs. 3,000 crore for women safety, including installing GPS systems and video cameras in public transport, a big chunk of this money is still unspent. These statistics are certainly not very encouraging and calls for serious debate on safety plan for women.

United Nation's 'Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces' programme, recognised that cities all around the world were becoming unsafe for women. According to Laxmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director UN Women, "No city can be smart if half its population live in fear of violence. The city planners have to ensure that all areas have adequate lighting, especially, near bus stops, entrance to subways, inside subways, in parks and beaches. Going to marketplace, school and workplace should be hassle free for women, without dealing with hecklers, gropers and stalkers on a daily basis. Public transport in most of our metro cities is not safe for women," Puri added.

However, the Dhaula Kuan bus stop, where notorious Nirbhaya case happened is as vulnerable as it was then. Even at Connaught Place, the heart of national capital, roads are deserted after 10 pm, making streets crime prone for women. Situations in other cities are not better. What happened in Bangalore on the new-year eve, is something, we all are ashamed of.

"Unsafe public spaces are affecting the everyday lives of women as it restrict their freedom to move, study, work, and leisure," said Kalpana Vishwanathan, co-founder of SafetyPin, a women safety app.

It was to identify such unsafe spots, that prompted SafetyPin to go for safety audit which measures safety of the city based on nine parameters, including lighting, the state of the walk path, as well as the presence of people and specifically women on the streets, the availability of police, public transport and 'eyes on the street'. The app is able to show dark areas, unsafe areas, deserted areas and individual women can access information about safety in the city and can make informed decisions about moving around the city safely.

Smart City initiatives talks of city surveillance by putting CCTV camera, however just putting CCTV cameras and city surveillance is not enough. In many cases it helps in crime detection but we need a policy that targets at crime prevention. Also it excludes women who do not have access to smart phones. It is important to focus on how people can feel safer and to ensure their engagement in the safety surveillance, which makes it easier to report an incident of crime, to report about unsocial element or such culprits, which can go a long way in preventing crime.

"There is a need to challenge male hegemony over public space which is recognised but not challenged. Most of the policy initiatives are towards restricting women which is regressive. Women are restricted to go out in night, while the focus should be on encouraging more women to be on street. Women need to reclaim the public spaces," said women rights activist Kamla Bhasin.

This goes hand in hand with Jane Jacobs talks about the "eyes on the street" concept that is essentially about reconfiguring of the space itself so that more people have reason to be present there at all times to make the overall space more comfortable for all.

The initiatives like Pinjra Tod, that talks against gender-based discriminatory rules in Women's hostels and One Billion Rising, which talks about reclaiming public spaces by women, are step in this direction only which talks about equal rights for women for public space.

As French urbanologist and socialist Henri Lefebvre once said, urban safety for women is intertwined with the idea of 'Right to the City', that talks about right of every citizen to mobility and access to social, economic, political and cultural opportunities that the cities offer. Can our cities offer equal right to women folk to move freely in the public space without the fear of being stalked, groped or molested? If not, we have to rejig the whole concept of smart city.


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