Making Women feel safer

Women Safety a Must for A Vibrant City 

Last week, a friend who is settled in Hong Kong for the last 23 years, asked me if India was safe enough for a single women like her to return to her country and live a “full” life. I knew what she meant by a full life – having an independent and uplifting career, being able to go for hiking, biking and trekking sojourns and being able to hang out with friends.  I didn’t have a firm answer for her; nevertheless, I encouraged her to take a leap of faith.

Women safety is an issue we are grappling with in everyday lives in our cities. But just like pollution, it is also deterring people like my friend to return to her country. The issue is as perplexing and complex as pollution if not less. While at one level, it involves pre-conditioning, unconscious biases, stereotypes and values we give our children, on the other level, it needs appropriate urban structures for women to move around comfortably feeling safe and secure. There is also a lack of consensus on key enablers to women safety. Leave alone men, women with progressive mindsets often talk about “half-baked” and “ill-conceived” ideas for enhancing women safety.  

Given our early age conditioning and societal biases, women themselves are often unclear about their true roles and identities. Education sadly does not teach the right approach on women centric issues. How else would you explain highly educated women in social settings talking about how a good-looking girl is more likely to get molested or stalked. It comes from a warped sense of what is right and wrong. We often say the “wrong” because we are unaware of what the “right” is.

We need to educate our communities through interactions, awareness and more community engagements of what are the right frameworks to build a safe society.  Much of the work begins at home. We need guiding principles for parents on how they can create a gender sensitive environment at home. Even expressions such as “tu ladki se game kesse har gaya” (How can you lose the game with a girl) or “ladke rote nahin hain” (boys don’t cry) may seem casual statements, but have deep underpinnings that suggest boys must always remain in control.

Creating the right infrastructure for safe public spaces is also important. There certainly need to be adequate streetlights on roads and streets both in terms of quality and quantity. Very often, street lights do not work or streets are so poorly lit. Besides, a certain vibrancy on roads – including vendors, pedestrians etc – to ensure enough eyes on the road is a must. Sometimes we create high speed fast corridors in the midst of a city without any infrastructure for pedestrians or cyclists. The famous Golf Course Road in Gurugram is a classic example of such faulty planning.

Broken and un-even pavements add to the feeling of insecurity. What we need is smooth and well-maintained pavements for pedestrians and well-defined, well-lit walk paths. Women feel highly unsafe in deserted and dingy paths or sub-ways. Proper signages and directions on the roads also add to the sense of safety.

Creating public spaces is one thing, how well they are being used by the city-dwellers is another. Gurugram has a few public spaces, but these spaces do not attract diverse multi-gender crowds. City residents have to make greater use of these spaces by organising informal meets, picnics, music events around them (when the weather is good) and not just restricting their meets to malls and coffee shops. 

Another important facet of safety is having a robust, reliable public transport system. It is safer for women to travel in public and ensures more eyes on the road. Also, the entire police force, traffic police included, need to be sensitised and responsive to women related issues and crimes, rather than limiting the accountability to women-only police stations and women police/traffic officers.

In corporate life too, women have to deal with often not-so subtle gender discrimination and fight off stereotyping tendencies. Expectant women or those will small children are often not considered for challenging roles. Besides, many women quit their careers early or mid- way due to family and children taking priority. Very few are able to make it to leadership positions. Here too, there are stereotypes. A women leader who is assertive is termed “bossy” while her male counterpart is often called “a good boss.” Sometimes, women do not get support from other women in office. One of the most insidious ways in which a woman is impacted is sexual harassment.  Thankfully, since December 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place Act 2013 is in place that has created legitimate structures within organisations to prevent and redress these issues. Still, much has to be done in spirit to create a healthy work environment for women to feel safe and empowered within organisations.

So, to my dear friend I can say that India has progressed to some extent on gender sensitivity as compared to when she left. These issues are being highlighted, talked about, written about, and debated; families are becoming more conscious of what they talk to their children, both genders are more sensitised to the need for women upliftment; and, enterprises are ‘beginning to think and act’ on bringing true gender equality and empowerment. Still a lot remains to be done.

Nevertheless, a good time to return, albeit not without scepticism. Return to India, not only add to the community of progressive women in the country, but also to help break stereotypes.

Welcome home my friend!

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