Re-imagining Public Space through a Gender Lens – Dr Sudeshna Roy

Globally, urban public spaces in traditional conservative regions have been out of bounds to women, but the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak has fundamentally affected the access, use, mobility and the relationship of women with the public spaces. Social distancing norms and restrictions of access to streets, pedestrian walkways and city squares have made the urban street life devoid of vibrancy. Amidst this, women as a group have been conspicuously displaced from the urban spaces due to various inherent structural inequalities in its design and functioning. This has and would jeopardize the pathways of convergence towards SDG’s 5 and 11 (Target 11.7) which vouchsafes for making no discrimination against women in access to resources; and making the urban centres more inclusive, safe and resilient.

In the post-COVID world, urban spaces need to be re-purposed and re-imagined without forgetting to account for women as their users. Women’s voices must be involved in designing and commissioning as valuable participants and public space utilizers to have a women-friendly place making a reality. At the foremost safety and security is of prime importance since acts of violence and its high-risk possibilities hinder women’s transit through city streets and public transport. Lack of adequate and gender-responsive infrastructure such as the bus, metro, railways, absence of feeder transport facilities on specific routes, safe transport terminals, street lighting, strict police patrolling and women-only hygienic public toilets are restrictive factors that discourage the presence of women in urban spaces, especially during the night. This invariably limits the nature of work, work participation, income-earning avenues for women, timings and duration of time spent in the public space. This is true for the self-employed women; street vendors, personal care-workers such as domestic workers, sanitation and construction workers and scores of daily-wagers such as garment workers in the informal sector; who find it challenging to make ends meet, now have to bear additional health expenses for Covid-19 protection.

Perception of the public space, by women is mired by the sense of being unwelcome; by way of the intruding male gaze, unwanted moral policing by men and vulnerable to being sexually stereotyped, victim-blamed and ostracized and by fear of being subjected to GBV (gender-based violence). Thus the behaviour of women in everyday life is characterized by short trips from home to work, preferably during daylight reduced exposure to commercial spaces which are typically dominated by men without definite purpose and making sure of being accompanied by a male. Life choices of women such as education paid work participation, unpaid chores responsibilities, leisure and religious activities, transport modes availed are thus found to be delineated by their agency and how they negotiate through public spaces.

Since crowding and congregating in public spaces, is not allowed and the intermittent lock downs have compelled people to stay indoors; city streets have turned into isolated spots making women susceptible to crime including snatching and abduction. With rising evident reports of accelerated incidences of domestic violence during the lockdown, women are cornered, even at presumably safe spaces. Public parks and playgrounds must incorporate safety measures alongside public health protection regulations against Corona virus transmission, so that it doesn’t hinder the recreational use by young and adolescent girls and subsequently ensure robust health and well being. Urban practitioners must upkeep mandates of equality in city planning so as to encourage wider accessibility by women, members of LGBTQAI community, disabled and aged women.

The need of the hour is thorough ideation and dialogues across multidisciplinary forums such as among gender experts, sociologists, legal professionals and urban policymakers such as the one like Urban Thinkers Campus to propose implementable solutions through city development and master plans. Active citizen’s women-led movements at the community level such as Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi, Chilean women protesting against GBV via flash mobs, ‘Reclaim the night/Take back the night’ movements across Indian cities deliberate on claiming the women’s right to public spaces by revolting against systematic marginalization thereby bringing into common discourse the neglected aspect of gender conceptualization of public city spaces. Promptness in policing actions such as enhanced surveillance using high-grade ubiquitous ICT (information and communication technology) in public transport, market complexes, integrated collaboration across residential welfare associations (RWA’s) and ward level administrative units for neighbourhood vigil, awareness campaigns by NGO’s through online/web-based applications such as Red Dot Foundation Global and Safecity would promote social cohesion that public space embodies. Since public spaces are diverse; open (parks, beaches, sidewalks) and closed (malls, museums, sports grounds), planning must be tailor-made which must be free from ‘one-size fits all’ approach. A participatory and action-oriented framework comprising of women from all walks of life would be instrumental in garnering public opinion and gender activism. It would help in emanating the segregated public spaces from patriarchal and orthodox control and provide it with a gender-equal identity, freedom of ownership and entitlement for accessibility.

The views expressed are that of the writer .

Dr. Sudeshna Roy is a  Research and Statistical Analysis Advisor Sathi All For Partnerships 2020.

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