Planning cities as if women matter


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OVER the past few years the issue of women’s right to or safety in the city has come centre stage, primarily because of the growing incidents of violence. Expectedly, it has been the more horrific and extreme cases that catch media attention, such as the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012, or the case of molestation in Guwahati, or the murder in broad daylight of a young college girl by her stalker, though there have been a continuing stream of horrific cases over the past months. Beyond the actual experience of violence though, the experience of the city for women and girls is often one of fear and exclusion. Violence, an everyday reality for most women in cities, needs to be seen as part of the generalized discrimination faced by women and girls which prevents their free movement as also their ability to access the city.

Historically cities have always been male spaces.1 The entry of large numbers of women into the workplace changed the dynamics of the city, though they were often restricted to women’s jobs and usually separate spaces. Even so, the streets were not spaces where women could comfortably access, unless they were able to clearly demonstrate their purpose in using it, such as going to work, returning home, going to a store and the like. In a study of women’s role in cities, historian Elizabeth Wilson writes, ‘For although women along with minorities, children and the poor are still not full citizens in the sense that they have never been granted full and free access to the streets, industrial life still drew them into public life and they have survived and flourished in the interstices of the city, negotiating the contradictions of the city in their own particular way.’2


Cities as sites of production and consumption are gendered in their very imagination. They are not neutral spaces and have often been planned and designed keeping in the mind the ‘male worker citizen’. The gendered nature of cities and urbanization manifests itself in the exclusions, lack of opportunities, and kinds of infrastructure and services which impact women’s access. Thus, poor connectivity through public transport or poor access to public toilets can have an impact on the way that women and girls are able to move around in the city.

Women’s access to different spaces in the city – especially public spaces – is limited both because ‘of the association of reproductive labour with the home, and of symbolic meanings surrounding the "forbidden" and "permitted" use of spaces governed by patriarchal power relations and norms of female propriety, which may require certain modes of dress, behaviour and limitations on social interaction to render women "invisible" or unapproachable.’3 This limited mobility can affect girls and women through lower literacy rates resulting from dropping out of school and limited opportunities to participate in the labour force.


In India, the data from the National Crime Records Bureau show that cities with a population of more than one million tend to have a higher rate of crime in general. There were 33,789 cases of crimes against women reported from 53 mega cities out of the total 2,28,650 cases reported in the country during 2011. Among them, Delhi accounted for 13.3% (4,489), followed by Bengaluru 5.6% (1,890), and Hyderabad 5.5% (1,860). The proportion of IPC crimes committed against women has increased during the last five years from 8.8 % in the year 2007 to 9.4% during the year 2011. Clearly official data is showing an increase in the reporting of crimes against women.4 Nevertheless, we recognize that reported crime is probably only the tip of the iceberg and violence against women and girls is a much more pervasive phenomenon than reflected by crime statistics. The work by women’s groups on domestic violence certainly indicates this.

It is only over the past few years that there has been an increased focus on safety in public spaces and cities. Several research studies have been conducted over the past few years to understand women’s experience and participation in cities. In Delhi, Jagori has conducted research studies and safety audits to better understand women’s actual experience and response to violence and fear in urban situations.5 Research has also been carried out in Mumbai by Akshara and in cities in Kerala by Sakhi which explore women’s experiences and perceptions of violence.6

In Delhi, a 2010 study with over 5000 men and women showed that over 95% of the women had experienced some form of harassment in the past year while a similar percentage of men reported having been witness to sexual harassment. Almost two out of three women and girls reported facing incidents of sexual harassment between 2-5 times in the past year.


Most of the findings are not surprising as it is becoming more clear through media reports that violence is not a rare or isolated incident in cities in India but a regular everyday phenomena. Women reported facing harassment during both day and night and in all kinds of public spaces, both secluded and crowded. While women of all ages faced some form of violence or sexual harassment, school and college girl students in the 15-19 age-group were the most vulnerable. Public transport, buses and the roadside were seen as the most vulnerable spaces, thus making the process of everyday life fraught with danger and the possibility of violence. In Mumbai too, 95% of the women respondents reported sexual harassment, 46% reported facing harassment inside buses and 23% while waiting at bus stops.

In Kerala, surveys carried out in two cities (Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode) showed similar results. Both witnesses and women respondents agreed that women face maximum harassment while using public transport, at bus stops and on the road. Sexual harassment has been pointed out as a problem by 98% women. Verbal and visual abuse is the most common form of sexual harassment, as reported by 80% women respondents. This is followed by physical harassment (60%). Parks have also been identified as unsafe by women. It is clear from these findings that women face harassment in the course of normal everyday life and not only at night or in specific places.

It is interesting to note that this is a problem that manifests itself in cities across the world. In a study in New York in 2007 with 2000 women, two-thirds reported experiences of sexual harassment and one in ten reported facing this on the train. Over the past few years, the awareness of violence against women in public spaces particularly in cities has become visible with initiatives like Hollaback which was started in New York but has now chapters in 64 cities. In a multi-city study on gender exclusion in cities in 2009, Delhi, Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Rosario (Argentina) reported over 75% of the women identifying gender as the main factor that contributed to their lack of safety.7

The experience of women in cities is diverse and determined by the intersection of gender with other identities. It is nevertheless true that despite differences, there does seem to be some core commonality that women have, namely a fear of sexual harassment or sexual assault, even though the actual level of vulnerability may in fact be determined by other factors such as age, class, where you live, how you travel and such factors – whether you are a student, older women, single women, professional, domestic workers and so on.


The immediate reaction to incidence of violence are outrage, anger at both the incident and the poor functioning of institutional structures, most often the police. We saw this happen after the 16 December gang rape where thousands of people poured onto the streets. Yet, it is important to recognize that improved policing alone cannot solve the problem of increasing violence and aggression in our urban spaces. Patriarchal ideologies continue to shape all institutions from the family to the police to schools and others. Further, attention needs to be given to the nature of urban growth, urban planning and governance that all play a significant role in the kind of cities we have. We are witnessing a process of exclusion of vast numbers of people in our cities, living on the periphery, both physically and metaphorically.


We need to unpack the geographies of exclusion that have come to define our cities in order to advocate for the design of safer and more inclusive cities. Through the process of conducting over a hundred safety audits over the past eight years in Delhi, and then through partners in Kerala, Kolkata and Mumbai, some of the key elements to building cities that are inclusive, safer and accessible have been delineated. Almost all the safety audits reveal that public spaces are poorly planned and designed for usage by the most vulnerable. For example, in Delhi even where there are ramps, such as in the Connaught Place area, no care has been taken to ensure that they can actually be used, since most of them lead to uneven patches on the road. In Kerala and Delhi, studies and audits point to an acute lack of public toilets and the often dismal state of the few that do exist. Clearly there is little or no effort to design a city for diversity, inclusion and enabling public spaces.

Urban development must enable vibrant economic, social and political engagement for the largest number of people, keeping at the forefront the needs of the most vulnerable. Caring cities need to create spaces for all and the problem of inclusion must be addressed through policies and structural changes. For instance, till very recently, the issue of women’s ‘safety’ or ‘inclusion’ in a city was not seen as a problem of the city but rather one that needed to be dealt with at the individual level. While such views still continue to be expressed, there is fortunately more support today for a larger collective responsibility.


Women have always engaged with the city through a process of fortifying themselves or withdrawing wherever possible. Writing about women’s experience in Latin America, based on a five country research, Ana Falu avers, ‘Women’s fear of moving freely through the city produces a kind of estrangement with respect to the spaces they occupy, and to their use and enjoyment of the city. In such circumstances, some women develop individual or collective strategies that enable them to overcome the obstacles hindering them from using the city and participating in social, economic and political life. In other cases, the result is a withdrawal from public space, which is experienced as threatening, leading sometimes to the complete abandonment of public space and the subsequent impoverishment on a personal and social level.’8

The challenge is to broaden this discourse to the role and responsibility of institutions to address the functioning of cities. Urban planners and service providers need to include gender concerns and women’s needs in their planning, so as to create infrastructure that is accessible to all. Safety audits have consistently pointed out that well designed, well lit and well maintained spaces are more likely to be used by a more diverse set of users, including women, children, elderly and others. Poor lighting poses a big challenge as the city becomes a hostile space for women once it is dark. Public toilets remain a major issue. Even a city like Delhi has barely enough public toilets for women and those that exist are not always usable. For example, in South Delhi, out of a total of 1147 toilets, only 67 were allotted for women.9 There are only two women’s toilets in the entire Karol Bagh area. Further, their design is rarely conducive for women to feel safe to use, especially when alone or after dark. There have been several cases of sexual assault in toilet blocks. The situation is even worse in low income areas where houses do not have individual toilets.


Public transport is another key issue where gender needs to be a key factor in planning and implementation. Women and men move around the city differently.10 Studies show that men often tend to make less trips as women are responsible for family obligations such as dropping children and going to the market. Women thus make more trips though they may be shorter. Gender blind transport planning often assumes male labour patterns, prioritizing travel from peri-urban areas to city centres during ‘peak hours’. This ignores women’s dominance in domestic, informal, part-time work in non-centralized zones, non-peak journeys and disproportionate household and care burdens – reflected in ‘trip chaining’, which refers to multipurpose, multi-stop excursions.11

Researchers talk about ‘forced immobility’ in the context of women’s mobility and freedom to access spaces ‘as the consequence of intersections between identities, location, culture, experiences, income, transport options and a combination of individual and institutionalised violence.’12 This is further reinforced through ideological notions of ‘good’ women who only use public spaces for a defined purpose. The ‘tyranny of purpose’ allows women to be legitimate users of public spaces only when they have a reason such as going to work or the market and dropping children and not to enjoy public spaces or ‘loiter’.13


Further, the surveys and safety audits done in India show that both waiting for and using public transport is fraught with the apprehension and actual experience of sexual harassment. The need to provide for the last mile is as important as setting up large transport systems because women need to reach their homes safely, not just the bus stop or metro station. Often the last mile is not even considered in the transport planning process and left to informal modes including shared autos, rickshaws and RTVs.

All these problems are further exacerbated for women and others in low income areas. Poor women are often the most vulnerable to violence because ‘…they are most exposed to the risk of violence and least able to remove themselves from violent situations.’14 They also have the least access to institutional support and often have to face bias if not violence. Recent studies have also shown the increased vulnerability of women in low income settlements to violence because of poor or non-existent infrastructure and services. A study in two resettlement areas in Delhi demonstrated how the acute lack of essential services such as water and sanitation renders women more vulnerable to violence.15 Further difficulties arise because women are constrained in their use of shared toilets because of fear of violence en route or at destination, as described for Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera.16 Moreover, for women living in poor neighbourhoods, productive and reproductive activities are often carried out in the same spaces and cramped homes lead to a blurring of the distinction between private and public spaces, making it important to speak of safety and urban space in a more nuanced manner.


There is an urgent need to imagine cities in radically different ways if they are to live up to the promise of freedom and opportunity for everyone. There is little doubt that urban spaces are diverse and a space where multiplicity of voices can exist. The overt and covert forms of violence inflicted on women in cities keep their mobility and freedom perennially curbed. The absence of women in the imagination of the city can only be challenged by their continuous presence in city life and pushing the boundaries that seek to control where and how they may be present.



1. C. Andrew, ‘Resisting Boundaries? Using Safety Audit for Women’, in K. Miranne and A. Young (eds,), Gendering the City: Women, Boundaries and Visions of Urban Life. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, 2000, pp. 157-168; C. Whitzman, ‘What Do You Want To Do? Pave Parks? The Planner’s Role in Preventing Violence’, in M. Eichler (ed.), Change of Plans: Towards a Non-Sexist Sustainable City. Garamond Press, Toronto, 1995, pp. 89-110.

2. E. Wilson, The Sphinx in the City. University of California Press, Berkeley,1991, p. 8.

3. S. Chant, ‘City Through a Gender Lens: A Golden Age for Women in the Global South’, Environment and Urbanisation 25(9), 2013, pp. 8-29.

4. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Delhi, 2011.

5. Jagori, Understanding Women’s Safety: Research Findings, 2010; Jagori and UN Women, Safe City Free of Violence: Findings from Baseline Study, 2010.

6. Sakhi, Are Cities in Kerala Safe for Women, 2010; HT-Akshara Survey, December 2012.

7. Women in Cities International, ‘Learning from Women to Create Gender Inclusive Cities’, 2010; K. Viswanath, ‘Gender Inclusive Cities Programme’, in C. Whitzman et al.(eds.), Building Inclusive Cities. Routledge, London, 2013, pp. 75-89.

8. Ana Falu, Women in the City: On Rights and Violence. Women and Habitat Network of Latin America, 2009.

9. This was reported by the South Delhi corporation in response to a PIL filed in the High Court about lack of public toilets for women in the capital.

10. Sandra Rosenbloom, Research on Women’s Issues in Transportation. Transportation Research Board, 2005; Jagori 2010; Jagori 2010a see Ref 5; Women in Cities International, 2012. Tackling Gender Exclusion.

11. S.Chant, 2013, op cit.

12. C. Whitzman, ‘Women’s Safety and Everyday Mobility’, in Whitzman et al. (eds.), Building Inclusive Cities. Routledge, London, 2013, pp. 35-52.

13. S. Phadke, et al., Why Loiter. Penguin, Delhi, 2011.

14. N. Kabeer, Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought. Verso, London, 1999.

15. Jagori and WICI, Gender and Essential Services in Low Income Communities. Delhi, 2011.

16. Amnesty International, Insecurity and Indignity: Women’s Experiences in Slums of Nairobi, 2010.