A recent photography project documented the lack of women loitering in Bengaluru. While men access public spaces freely, women venture out of their homes only for specific purposes, the project indicated. Why is women’s access to public spaces so limited in Bengaluru, as in other Indian cities?
To understand women’s participation in the city, it is necessary to focus on the structural factors that affect their ability to move and access opportunities. Data suggests that women often work out of their homes, tend to walk more and have shorter commutes, revealing a gender commuting gap in Indian cities.
Bengaluru needs to be an equitable city
For cities to be truly inclusive and equitable, their physical and social infrastructure needs to be designed accordingly. That is, they should have well-designed and accessible public transport, well-lit streets, wide footpaths, public hospitals, child-care facilities, and so on.
The absence of equitable infrastructure in Indian cities hampers women’s ability to move around and participate in the city freely, making their experience very different from that of men. Even the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015, included a call to make cities inclusive, safe and resilient, with a particular focus on women and girls from low-income groups who face challenges in accessing clean water, housing, sanitation, transport, etc.
According to a ranking of global cities in 2019, Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru were among the least inclusive and equitable in the world. At Vidhi Legal, our ongoing research focuses on looking at cities from a feminist perspective, to see whether Bengaluru’s urban planning and public spaces are sensitive to women’s needs.
What an equitable city should have
- Physical Infrastructure: Well-lit streets, footpaths, free public toilets that are open 24/7, parks, benches
- Social Infrastructure: Community housing, shelter homes, public child-care facilities, skill development centres
- Mobility Infrastructure: Free or low-cost public transport, particularly quality bus transport ensuring adequate frequency and connectivity, and well-maintained bus stands
- Institutional Infrastructure: Public hospitals and reproductive health facilities, mental health facilities, legal aid centres, one-stop crisis centres
Cities that ignore women’s needs become hostile to them
All inhabitants of Bengaluru do not have a common urban experience. The differences in one’s class, caste, religion, sexuality, age, disability, marital status, etc. often result in combined forms of exclusion, affecting people’s ability to access and participate in the city. Further, all women do not experience the city in the same vein.
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The use of urban space depends on our everyday life experiences, hence we need to examine how the city responds to the everyday needs of people. For instance, the way a person travels could be impacted by their gender and gendered social expectations. In India, women are often tasked with domestic activities and care work, even if they are engaged in paid labour outside the home. If a person is engaged only in paid labour outside (traditional male gender role), their mobility is likely to be linear, i.e., involving a direct trip from home to work and vice-versa.
Whereas, when a person is undertaking domestic activities and caring for dependents such as children or an older family member, their movement is more complex due to trip chaining, i.e., a series of short trips linked together between destinations, such as a trip to leave home, a stop to drop a child at the daycare centre, a stop for grocery shopping, and a trip to return home (traditional female gender role). These kinds of differences in behaviour need to be taken into account while designing transport policies and infrastructure.
Cities that do not address women’s needs as described above, end up becoming hostile and discriminatory to them.
How can Bengaluru become inclusive?
Legal and policy interventions can go a long way in building equitable cities. One must start with gender-inclusive processes. This is far from the norm in Bengaluru.
Public representation in urban planning
In Bengaluru, the mandate for urban planning vests with the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), a parastatal agency with no people’s representation, forget women being consciously included in the process. Existing municipal laws need to be amended to integrate participatory planning and design processes that treat women and girls as empowered partners, with shared decision-making power.
The Catalan Neighbourhood Law passed in 2004 is an example. It mandated the inclusion of the gender perspective in the design of urban spaces and facilities, making financing for projects under the law contingent on integrating gender equality among other factors. In India’s cities, local governments can facilitate more representation by:
- Collecting accurate gender-disaggregated data or gender-sensitive data
- Facilitating focus group discussions to identify women’s priorities
- Conducting safety audits of neighbourhoods
- Involving women’s groups in community mapping to identify needs and provision of services in their neighbourhoods
A ‘Feminist Urbanism’ approach
A useful tool for urban planning is the framework of ‘Feminist Urbanism’ which focuses on building equitable cities through the allocation of resources and services fairly to different social groups, particularly to women and sexual minorities. It advocates designing streets and public spaces that encourage women to occupy the city, and designing for provision of services that cater to the needs of women, trans- and gender-queer folks.
These services range from accessible housing, free public health centres, sanitation facilities, child care services, parks, etc. It is vital to recognise that women and sexual minorities are often among the groups worst-affected by urban poverty and deprivation.
These tools and approaches would go a long way in helping realise women’s right to cities.
[This article was first published on the blog of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, and has been republished with edits. Read the original article here.]