Unspeakable Inequalities: Building Safer Cities for Women

by Kalpana Viswanath

Creating safety involves much more than just responding to violence. It is important to create the conditions by which women are able to move about safely and without fear of violence or assault. Fear often plays a key role in women’s experience and access to the city. Therefore in order to create greater levels of safety and comfort, both actual violence and the fear of violence need to be addressed. Women’s safety  in the city tends to come to the forefront when there is a particularly horrific and extreme case such as the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012 or the case of molestation in Guwahati or the Shakti mills case. The media highlighting of these in the past few years has  also played a role in this.

Research has shown that many factors play a role in determining women’s access to the city including urban design and planning, community involvement, improved policing, usage of space etc.  For example, use of spaces for a diversity of purposes is often more conducive to the production of safety. Planners and sociologists argue that this diversity ensures that different kinds of people use the space and that it is used through all times of the day. Jane Jacobs (1960) states that the problem of insecurity cannot be solved by getting people off the streets and instead we need to ensure “eyes on the street” as the solution to lack of safety. She advocates for diversity in the use of public spaces as a way to ensure that there are at all times different sets of users of a space thereby ensuring a level of safety and comfort.

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 was a total of 33,789 cases of crime against women were reported from 53 mega cities out of 2,28,650 cases reported in the country during 2011. Among them, Delhi accounted for 13.3% (4,489) of total such crimes followed by Bengaluru 5.6% (1,890) and Hyderabad 5.5% (1,860). The proportion of IPC crimes committed against women towards total IPC crimes has increased during last 5 years from 8.8 % in the year 2007 to 9.4% during the year 2011. Thus clearly official data shows an increase in the reporting of crimes against women. [1]

But we recognise that reported crime is probably only the tip of the iceberg and violence against women and girls is a much more pervasive phenomenon than demonstrated by crime statistics. Several research studies have been conducted over the past few years to understand women’s experience of violence in public spaces in cities. In Delhi Jagori has conducted several research studies and safety audits to better understand women’s  actual experience and response to urban situations.[2]

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 2 out of 3 women, including girls reported facing incidents of sexual harassment between 2-5 times in the past year. School and college students in the 15-19 age-group and women workers in the unorganized sectors are particularly vulnerable. It was reported that harassment occurs during day and night and in all kinds of public spaces, both secluded and crowded.  Further, the most common forms of harassment reported  were verbal and visual and physical (staring, passing comments, catcalls and touching). Public transport, buses and roadsides were seen as most the vulnerable spaces, thus making the process of everyday life fraught with danger and the possibility of violence. Both witnesses and women respondents agreed that women face maximum harassment while using public transport, bus stops and on the road.  Parks have also been identified as unsafe by women. The experience of women in cities is diverse and determined by the intersection of gender with other identities.

It is important to recognise that cities are sites of production and consumption that are gendered in their very imagination. The gendered nature of cities and urbanisation is visible in the exclusions, lack of opportunities, infrastructure and services which impact women’s every day experience of living and moving around in a city.  In the face of growing urbanisation our cities need to be designed , planned and governed in ways that are inclusive and safe for all.  Through the process of conducting over a hundred safety audits over the past several 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 including design of public space, social usage, nature of policing and importance of community engagement.

Therefore addressing violence against women cannot be seen only as the responsibility of the police or the women’s ministry only, but has to get onto the agenda of related stakeholders such as urban planning, transport, education, health among others. Responding to violence is  one part of the strategy; equally important is the need to create conditions of safety and inclusion.

In almost all the cities, it was found that public spaces are poorly planned and designed for the usage of the most vulnerable. Women and others in low income areas have  the least access to institutional support and often are faced with bias and even violence.  Recent studies have also shown the increased vulnerability of women in low income settlements to violence because of poor or nonexistent 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.[3] Beyond this, for women living in poor neighbourhoods, often productive and reproductive  activities are carried out in the same spaces and cramped homes lead to the blurring of the distinction between private and public spaces, making it therefore important to speak of safety and urban space in a more nuanced manner.

The discourse around safety must be located within a broader framework of rights. Lack of safety in fact prevents women from fully participating in the city. Thus addressing lack of safety or finding solutions also need to be posited within a framework of rights.  Women cannot be told to find their own solutions for their insecurity.  Solutions like carrying pepper sprays or learning self-defense are individualized solutions which are not based on the notion of safety as a right. For women, in fact the right to live, work, move around and participate in the city is premised on the right to safety. 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.


Kalpana Viswanath is a researcher who has been working on issues of violence against women and safer cities for women for over 20 years. Kalpana has been involved with UN Habitat, UN Women and Plan International in planning safe city programs in Cambodia, Pakistan, Kerala, Mumbai and Kolkata. She is the Chair of the International Advisory Committee of Women in Cities International and has published widely.

[1] NCRB Delhi 2011.

[2] Jagori 2010, Understanding Women’s Safety:  Research Findings;  Jagori & UN Women, 2010a, Safe City Free of Violence: Findings from Baseline Study.

[3] Jagori & WICI, 2011. Gender and Essential Services in Low Income Communities. Delhi.

Full text version of what Kavitha Krishnan said

The YouTube video’s doing the rounds but here’s the full text (translated) version of what Kavitha Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), said while protesting outside the Delhi Chief Minister’s residence:

“Today we protested outside Sheila Dixit’s house…and demanded that she should resign [over the inability of the govt to provide safety for women in Delhi streets]. It is important to understand why we are asking for this in more depth, and also to explain to them [the administration]. Sheila Dixit has said that since the rape happened in a private bus, not on a DTC [public service/Delhi Transport Corporation] bus, how is she responsible? So we have come to educate her, that if there are buses in which iron rods just lie about, where monsters travel around the city in these buses, where there are no rules or regulations for the operation of these buses, where they can do anything, for this you alone are responsible, no one else. Today, if that girl is fighting for her life, you are responsible. Why was that iron rod lying in that bus, this answer only you can give us, no one else. You cannot blame anyone else for this.

But there is a further, more important issue here, that we came here to protest today but have also been doing [for the past few days]. When journalist Soumya [Viswanathan] was killed, Sheila Dixit had said that she was out and about at 3 in the morning, she was too ‘adventurous’. So we have come here to say that women have every right to be adventurous. We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will not do anything to secure our ‘safety.’ Don’t tell us what to wear. What time at night we should be out, how we should be out during the day, how many people we should have with us – don’t tell us any of that. When Neeraj Kumar had just become Police Commissioner, he held a press conference in which he said, what can the police do in cases of rape? First he said that most often it is people who are well known to the woman who rape her. He is right, this is a fact. But then, shouldn’t this make it easier for them to be caught? After all, if she knows who has raped her, then it should make it all the easier to catch him. We are not asking the police, why didn’t you stop it. But we are asking them this: the conviction rate, which has gone from 46% in 1971 to 26% now, who is responsible for that? This tells us that there is a frightening gap, a lack in the police’s investigations…there is no procedure on how you must proceed in cases of rape. There is only one procedure that I think all women and girls standing here are familiar with. If you go to a police station and say that you have been the target of sexual violence, the first thing they will tell you is not to file an FIR [First Information Report]. People will come from all over, even from outside the police station to explain to you, “don’t file a complaint.” Until you go up the chain of command and say that you are from a students’ group, or a women’s group, nothing happens. This is so ordinary, there can hardly be a woman in all of Delhi who doesn’t know that this is the normal procedure that the police follow, not written in any rule book, it’s regular practice.

There is yet another thing that Neeraj Kumar had said in that press conference – that women shouldn’t travel alone at night, they should have someone with them. If you are out at 2 in the morning, how can you expect that we [the police] will come to save you? Now in this rape that has occurred, it is clear – it was neither 2 at night, and there was someone with her. Now if a woman wants to be out and about at night, there should not be the need to justify that she has to be out because she is working, she is returning from work. If she wants to be out, if she wants to go get a cigarette, if she wants to take a stroll, this desire should not be made into her crime. We don’t want to hear this defensive argument – that women only leave their houses for jobs, poor things, what can they do, they are compelled to leave their homes. We believe that women’s freedom – whether it is within the home or outside it, at night or in the daytime, whatever she is wearing – is an important matter and this freedom to be, a freedom from fear, must be protected. That is what we are asking for. I am saying this also because I feel that the word(s) security and protection in relation to women are thrown about a lot – because this word security, and all of us women have heard it from our families, our communities, from the principal, the warden, we all know what it means. Security means – you behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Don’t live on your terms of independence, that is what they mean by being safe. All the patriarchal norms and rules of society are gathered up and given to women as ‘protection’ and we reject this entirely, we are saying this is not what we want.

The Delhi Police has been running a campaign against violence against women. You might have seen the hoardings up near ITO…in an ad campaign regarding violence against women, there is not a single woman! There is a male film actor, Farhaan Akhtar, who is saying, Be a Man, join me in protecting women. So I want to ask, the brother who cuts his sister’s head off because she marries into another community, is he not fulfilling his duty of being a man, of being a brother? Is evoking masculinity part of the solution of violence against women, or is it the very root of it? It is very important to think about this. In the entire country, this is what we see outside the women’s movement, whether it is in government, police organisations, political parties, the judiciary…whenever they talk about the protection of women, they are talking specifically of a patriarchal protection of women. They are not talking about a freedom without fear, an unqualified freedom for women. Our work is this – the work of these agitations on the street which have been going on and I hope they continue – that the answer to such events does not lie in CCTV cameras, in the death penalty, in chemical castration. Our anger is legitimate, but I am fearful of “solutions” like this. If the problem is the conviction rate, how will the death penalty help? The conviction rate is low because in your entire procedure relating to rape, you don’t take the complainant seriously. It is another matter that the rape legislation is bad, it’s weak – rape by objects used to penetrate the woman’s body does not even feature in the definition of rape. A significant part of what happened on that bus in Munirka, which was so deadly, so dangerous for the girl, does not even qualify as rape under the law.

Here there is one more thing I would like to stress – Sushma Swaraj gave a speech in parliament in which she said something that I found utterly disgusting. Highly condemnable. She said, even if this girl lives, she will be a living corpse. Why? If this girl lives, I believe she will live with her head held high. She has fought. She fought, and that’s why, to teach her a lesson, the rapists beat and raped her. There can hardly be a woman here who hasn’t fought in Delhi’s buses, who hasn’t stood alone in her fight against this violence. Who hasn’t felt utterly alone in these situations. I read in the papers, I don’t know if it’s true, but I read that when she gained consciousness, she asked whether the rapists had been caught. Her desire to fight is still strong, it is not over. We salute that desire to fight, those who survive rape are not living corpses. They are fully alive, fighting, striving women and we salute all such women.

The last thing I would like to say is this: There are plenty of people who say in times like this – let’s not politicise the matter. But there is a need to talk about it, and politics is not cheapened by it. The culture of rape, the justification by people from up high – like KPS Gill who said that rape occurs because women wear tight clothes – the vast number of people who say these kinds of things…if we want to change this then we must make rape a political issue. We have to talk more about what women are saying about the violence that is done to them. And the government will have to listen. Shedding some crocodile tears in parliament isn’t going to be enough. By shouting about the death penalty you won’t be able to solve this problem. I find it ironic that the BJP is the loudest when it comes to asking for the death penalty, but states where they are in power, their own goons run about harassing girls wearing jeans, girls who have Muslim or Christian boyfriends, and warn them that girls have to be the carriers of Hindu culture and values, or else. We have to respond to these thugs with a counter-culture, a counter-politics of our own. One that demands women’s rights to full freedom, fearless living. We have been attacked by water cannons here by the police, and I have to say I have been really surprised by that. There are demonstrations all over the city, and surely the government should have some sense that this anger that people have is not going to be beaten back by water cannons and lathis. It is shameful that the government and police are ever-ready to attack those who fight for women’s rights, while presenting arguments oh behalf of the rapists.”

English Translation by Amrita Ibrahim (sourced via Facebook)