Event Reports

Stricter implementation of laws key to women’s safety

Safer cities are a product of technology, policing, community participation, education, and planning and architectural design. In the policy frame, focus should be on inclusive development, participatory approaches, identity mainstreaming, and sustainable urban development to create a more equal and tolerant urban society.

2014
Mar
19

Technology, change in mindsets and better urban planning can help make our cities safer for women, according to experts who spoke at the conference ’Half a Billion Locked In: Perspectives on Safe Cities and Women Empowerment,’ on 19 March at Observer Research Foundation.

Noting that stricter implementation of laws is the key to women’s safety, participants expressed hope that women’s safety is included in election manifestos and that women’s issues become electoral issues.

Mr. Surendra Singh, Advisor to ORF and a former Union Cabinet Secretary, set the tone, giving an overview of crimes against women in India. According to the data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, crimes against women are on the rise and despite several guarantees enshrined in the Constitution, gender equality has not been achieved. India is not close to Mao’s statement that “women hold up half the sky.”

Mr Singh said one of the reasons women have not been able to fulfil their potential is their concern for safety. Elaborating further on the NCRB data, Mr. Singh said that 25,000 rapes were registered in 2012, but this number is grossly skewed because of NCRB’s method of categorising crimes. There is also under reporting due to the social stigma attached to crimes against women. Unsafe cities result in women becoming reluctant to go out, not being able to deliver their best and fulfil their potential despite their willingness to work.

Criticising government response to incidents of violence against women, Mr Singh said that a stricter law without proper implementation cannot act as a deterrent. Some other challenges highlighted were inadequate training of the police, slow judicial and investigative processes etc. Recognising that an institutional overhaul is a long drawn process, Mr. Singh said it was time for taking serious considerations for a safer environment for women in cities.

Moderated by eminent journalist Namita Bhandare, the first panel included Nirmala Sitharaman, national spokesperson of the BJP, Prof. Shormishtha Panja from the Delhi University and Prabhleen from Jagori. Sitharaman talked about a layer of unattended issues underneath cases of violence against women. Pointing out that there are various contributing factors to the laconic attitude towards women’s issues, she said that society as a whole, both men and women included, should be held responsible. The language we use, full of scorn for women, reinforces these insensitivities.

Giving the example of dowry cases, she raised concerns over the reach of laws and whether legislators are evaluating the effectiveness of the law. While protective instruments are present and have been looked into by various women’s bodies, implementation suffers. Moreover, there are insufficient number of courts and inadequate facilities in existing courts.

Ms. Sitharaman pointed out that courts are not women friendly spaces and suffer from lack of clean toilets, availability of lawyers, judges who are interested in hearing women’s cases. Making access to justice easier for women has to be the first point of redressal by the government. Solutions must have forward and backward linkages to be able to convince women to be more active in public life, she said. If such linkages are not present, women will be forced to stay in and hence become locked in.

Prof. Shormishtha Panja followed with a presentation on women’s perceptions of safety in Delhi. She said that at least four rapes and nine molestations are reported every day in Delhi. Young women voters cite women’s safety as main concerns during elections. In a survey consisting of working women, 43% said they would like to work outside of Delhi and 64% said safety concerns have impacted their productivity. Similarly, in a survey conducted during Delhi University admissions, many outstation students said they were being discouraged to apply over safety concerns.

A safety audit conducted by NGOs Jagori and Pehel in the north campus of the Delhi University revealed that space is not gender neutral. Prof. Panja highlighted the oft-neglected point that freedom from violence comes with freedom from poverty. More importantly, issues of violence against women involve questions of self-worth; a woman can be free from violence only when she values herself. She stressed that energy, time and resources should be invested, not in repairing the situation post incident, but in a preventive manner by making sure crimes do not happen in the first place.

While talking about the difference between safety and security, Prof. Panja proposed that safety is more of a social and personal concern whereas security is something that can be ensured by policing systems. Safety then becomes a matter of social responsibility, something we are all in charge of. Consequently, it is important to change mindsets of ’she asked for it.’ One of the core problems is the lack of ownership of the girl child. A girl is always treated as somebody else’s property and is therefore neglected. Gender sensitisation, ownership of public spaces and being accountable in such spaces have to be inculcated in the collective psyche, concluded Prof. Panja.

Prabhleen, from Jagori, said that right to the city means the ability to participate in the city. But fear of violence smothers this right for women and leads them to negotiate their public life. While undertaking their Safe Delhi campaign, Jagori found that the notion of safety is different for different people in the same space because women are not homogenous. They are divided into migrants and locals, rich and poor, students and working women, and several other such social identities that in turn inform their perceptions of safety in a particular area. Another notable observation was that there exists a section of people, who by virtue of their occupation, become witnesses to sexual harassment on the street.

Presenting some statistics on sexual harassment from a survey conducted by Jagori, Prabhleen said that the majority of women who have experienced sexual violence are in the 15-19 age group; 2 out of 3 women said they have been harassed; 49% of men have been witness to sexual harassment, and less than 1% women approached the police. The main reason for the prevalence of harassment is male domination of public spaces, which can be made gender neutral through better service delivery, including transport, water and sanitation, etc, as well as urban planning through a gender lens, argued Prabhleen.

Prabhleen shared that using a safety audit tool, Jagori tried to determine what would make a place more woman friendly. Better lighting, accessible toilets, continuous footpaths, well-lit parking areas and better designed transport facilities came out as important factors. Prabhleen said that women’s safety should not just be looked at as a social problem which would require a change in mindsets but as one that has practical and simple solutions which require investment. Following Jagori’s initiative the Delhi High Court ordered the government to map the city from a street safety perspective.

Prabhleen emphasised the role of advocacy, especially with the police. The Justice Verma Committee report said that the police cannot be held solely responsible for growing violence against women as they do not have adequate training and standard protocols in place for them to follow when faced with such cases. Institutional education on gender issues must be brought in, said Ms. Prabhleen. There have been severe lapses in present ’solutions’ like the 181 helpline number in Delhi which suffers from problems like unpaid salaries and lack of translators.

Similar training is required in educational institutions. Unfortunately, schools and colleges do not see gender mainstreaming and education as their responsibility. Frequently, solutions suggested by heads of institutions take a regressive route like segregation, which is often rooted in patriarchal attitudes. Here again, problems can be solved by policy solutions instead of treating them as larger social issues, commented Ms. Prabhleen.

During the Q&A session after the first panel discussion, when asked about how to avoid preaching to the choir when talking about women’s issues, and instead get through to perpetrators and tacit supporters, Ms Sitharaman said that talking to each other is important because it reinforces support for women’s issues. But we also need to engage with people who differ from us. All parts of society must be treated as legitimate and cannot be alienated.

On the question of reducing male dominance in public spaces, public urination was highlighted as an area where such skewed ownership exists. Public urination is not seen as an issue. Government budgets do not include public toilets as essential amenities but as add ons. Moreover, toilets bring out gendered notions and there is still an element of shame attached to women using public toilets. Boys and girls are given different messages about toilet usage. Girls are told to keep it private while boys are not. Ms. Sitharaman pointed out that projects to build toilets have existed for 40 years. Her own experience in tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh revealed that local sensitivities were not considered during these initiatives; focusing instead on meeting targets.

Ideas of masculinity, popular culture of establishing male dominance over spaces and women, discrimination at the level of family were the other issues that were raised by the audience. Responding to a question on symbolism of making a woman the head of women issues departments or ministry, Ms. Sitharaman stressed that women groups must let go easy on the symbolism since it limits their scope. If they insist upon a woman for the Women and Child Welfare ministry, their chances of getting defence, commerce, external affairs etc are severely hampered.

The second panel was conceptualised as a brain storming session with practical issues being offered. Highlighting the importance of safe cities for women, Ms Priyanka Chaturvedi, spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, said that they reduce crimes against women, create more inclusive societies, promote economic growth, and lead to women empowerment. She also said that we have lacked in long term implementation of policies to make cities safer for women. She reminded everybody that while we have systems to deal with the crime, we have none to pre-empt crimes. Chaturvedi also stressed the need for accountability of the government.

Mr Goonmeet Singh Chauhan, founder of the DFI, an architectural firm in New Delhi, gave a presentation on practical solutions and ideas for safe cities. He said that safety is a function of an enabling environment, choice (to make the environment safe) and finally, transparency. Taking Select City Walk shopping mall as an example, he said that it was built with the intention of creating a safe and convenient environment for women. Facilities like women attendants, clear coordinates, glass walls to ensure visibility, pockets of commercial activity, high density of CCTV cameras and generous walking spaces all contribute to making the building more secure. Investing in safety for women makes good business sense, said Mr Chauhan, citing the huge profits made by the mall in comparison to other malls in the area.

Mr Chauhan went on to list three measurable domains of action: intervention in the built environment, deployment of technology, and transforming mindsets to make cities safer.

Intervention in built environment would entail making changes to existing structures like well lit streets, contiguous pedestrian fabric, a regulated informal sector, and safe and clean toilets. For example, legitimising the informal sector by issuing a license to the shop owner by the local policeman instils a sense of responsibility and ownership of the street and makes them accountable to the local police.

Mr Chauhan further explained how technological innovations like emergency buttons on phones that send out messages to your friends when pressed, can help improve women’s safety. The safest cities in the world are also smart cities. A digital nervous system that wires government departments with each other, complete CCTV coverage, tools like predictive analytics and big data might hold the key to creating a safe environment.

The third measurable action is to change mindsets. This can be done through traditional methods like gender sensitivity programs in schools and religious places to encourage tolerance and pluralism. Innovative methods like tax concessions for women empowerment programs, monetising and incentivising projects on women’s safety will also go a long way in shining the spotlight on women’s issues. What if consulting on safety and women became a lucrative business, questioned Mr. Chauhan. For this he proposed four ideas. The first is an index called the Index of Women Empowerment and Safety or IWES which will include different categories of safety and friendliness, which will then be used to rank businesses, organisations, physical spaces, etc. All these entities will become compliant to the demands of the index which will set in motion a positive movement towards women’s safety.

The second is a website called Safetyadvisor.org much like Tripadvisor.org, which will show details about a particular physical space like hotels, police stations, schools, malls, etc. Details will include IWES ranking, environment, staff friendliness, etc. Visitors will also be able to raise concerns with the concerned authorities which helps in building overall connectedness.

The third is CCTV camera coverage, which can be made profitable. If every street light has a CCTV attached to it, the minute someone commits an offence in the range of the camera, a combination of geo coordinates and face recognition will send an SMS to the perpetrators phone saying they have been fined. This can be given out to companies to make them interested in investing in public safety.

The fourth is creating an organisation called the Toilet Corporation of India, which is essentially giving auction rights to local businesses to build toilets. The money earned from the toilet can be shared among the owner, the market association and the corporation. Thus creating a revenue model around safety tools will incentivise people to take action and make it part of everyday life, concluded Chauhan.

Mr Jochen Mistelbacher, Senior Fellow at ORF, spoke about the relationship between crime and urban planning in India and Germany, and used the German city of Nuremberg as a case study.

Noting the rapid rate of urbanisation, Mr Mistelbacher said that in India, 377 million people live in 8000 cities. Large cities are growing faster than smaller ones and experts expect urban spaces to grow in the future. Urban spaces suffer from many problems like socio-economic polarisation, inequality and exclusion in access to housing and basic services which in turn leads to disintegration of society. In India, 20% of urban houses do not have toilets. One can estimate that around 20 million women are exposed to unsafe situations due to lack of a basic amenity such as a toilet in their own homes.

The relationship between crime and urban planning was identified by the Chicago school of sociology. The broken windows theory was proposed, which states that where there is one broken window, one can expect to see more broken windows essentially saying that a part of the city where there are signs of violence is susceptible to even more violence. Therefore, environmental design can help prevent crime. In the EU, to prevent crime through urban planning a three pronged standardisation approach – planning, design and management – was devised.

In Germany, which always had a long tradition of welfare measures to promote social stability and integration, the state has begun to withdraw from security issues laying more emphasis instead on informal social control like spatially oriented approaches in urban related crime prevention. The ISIS model of preventive urban design is used which entails integration measures at the micro level, social management in neighbourhood level, intermediate cooperation between different actors, and urban design.

Mr Mistlebacher shared that in the city of Nuremberg, a security architecture consisting of the police and department of public order exists. A security council is formed which is based on community policing, ’broken windows’ approach, and a zero tolerance policy. Listing out aspects of production of security, he stated that responsiveness of public administration, an active local community, contact between local police stations and residents’ associations, strict enforcement of public order issues, emphasis on specific local context, and integration of different local actors are vital for making cities safe.

In the Q&A session, audience raised questions over government’s overall apathetic attitude towards women issues even in the aftermath of 16 December gang rape in Delhi. Ms Priyanka Chaturvedi responded by admitting to pitfalls. A debate on the efficacy of technology in curbing crime against women took place and issues regarding surveillance and individual privacy were also discussed. It was also agreed upon that ’safe city’ is an absolute and almost impossible to create, what we must strive therefore is to make our cities ’safer.’

Safer cities are a product of technology, policing, community participation, education, and planning and architectural design. In the policy frame, focus should be on inclusive development, participatory approaches, identity mainstreaming, and sustainable urban development to create a more equal and tolerant urban society. In the actors frame, the state, police, administration, media, schools, private sector, civil society, and individuals should all be involved. And finally the spatial frame should include national, city, local, household levels to be entirely effective.

(This report is prepared by Nishtha Gautam, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)