Urban planning in India does not factor in gender perspectives. Cities need to be redesigned to address the concerns of women; so that women can work, look after their families easily, and without having to expend more energy, time and money than men do.
The 2019 Safe City Index, prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranks Mumbai and Delhi as one of the worst cities where women’s safety is concerned. The Index ranked cities on indicators of personal security, digital security and infrastructure security, among other things. All these have a multiplier effect on the position of women — these can negatively affect their access to public spaces, jobs and even how much leisure time they can spend. Indifference to concerns of women results in a difficult commute and poor childcare facilities.
To make cities women-friendly, urban planners must focus on two core issues —greater safety from violence and adequate childcare support. Much of the current discourse focusses on improving street lighting and providing safe toilets. These are important but even more critical to making public spaces safer is mixed land-use planning. The segregation of commercial and residential areas automatically increases the commute from work to home and creates entry barriers to mobility for women. Mixed land-use, by encouraging office space and commercial areas in residential localities, makes for regular use of streets, better lighting and encourages women to use public spaces.
We already have an example in the planned city of Chandigarh, one of the safest for women in India. This city factored in local markets, commercial offices, schools, public parks, post offices, police posts and medical clinics into the design of each small locality or sector. Shaded footpaths were created for walking such that it was possible to cover the city on foot and remain in the shade. And, yet, extensive mixed-use was simply not replicated in other Indian cities. Chandigarh remained an isolated example.
A 2019 Ola Mobility Institute study, which surveyed men and women in 11 cities in India, said that while 80% respondents lived within a 15-minute walking distance of a bus stop, only 47% either walked or cycled to the bus stop. The others used shared transport, two-wheelers and cars. Shared transport has been found to be generally unsafe. But in the absence of dedicated footpaths or cycle tracks, women commuters have little option.
In reimagining urban spaces, we must not focus on somewhat vacuous efforts such as creating special transport services for women. It would, instead, be far more beneficial to sensitise men to be more civil. Already, various surveys have shown that the majority of men in India do not approve of boorish behaviour towards women. The 2015-16 National Family Health Survey indicated that 58% husbands disapproved of wife-beating. In a UN Women-sponsored household survey on sexual violence in public spaces in Delhi in 2012, 94% men said that people should intervene if they see sexual harassment in public spaces. This needs to be built upon and civility inculcated.
The other priority must be reliable childcare facilities, which are necessary if we expect women to enter the job market, sustain jobs and also pursue leisure activities. Ensuring that enough creches are available throughout the city is important to set women free and support them in discharging their parental duties. For construction sites, mobile creches could be the answer.
Recent research by economist Ashwini Deshpande shows that in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, those with children below five years suffered the most in the job market. In April 2019, the average employment of women in this category was 7.8%. This dropped sharply to 2.9% in April 2020. In August 2020, it recovered slightly to 3.5%. What is noteworthy is that it was the most highly-educated women who suffered the maximum job losses.
For those with qualifications higher than post-graduate and children below five years of age, the average employment shrank drastically in April 2020, as per the report. With work-from-home becoming the norm, it is the aspirational group of women who lost out the most. An institutional support structure that can take care of this responsibility would improve female participation in the labour force.
It is entirely possible to address such gaps through pilot projects in smaller townships. If well executed, such projects will draw the population away from the mega-cities. The safety of women is a major concern in any household location decision. Undertaking such projects does not require much by way of capital. Various projects for upgrading city infrastructure are already in execution throughout India. Those can easily be tweaked to incorporate gender perspectives.
To make cities women-empowering, we need more imagination and will.
Meeta Rajivlochan is an IAS officer and currently member-secretary, National Commission for Women
The views expressed are personal