It’s 2021 — Why Are Public Spaces & Roads Still Unsafe For Women?

Of the women reporting harassment, 75% experienced harassment on streets & 19% at bus stops. 

5 min read
Hindi Female

(This was first published on 2 January. It has been republished from The Quint's archives to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November.)

As economies have grown and urbanised, incidents of violence against women have also grown — unfortunately, women’s right to public spaces and their mobility has been severely limited by the threat of violence, which compromises their choices when it comes to education, work and leisure. India is no exception. Our cities have been in the news for such incidents, the most noted being the Nirbhaya case, which brought to light the risks of after-dark travel for most women.


Rise In Crimes Against Women

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for crimes against women for the year 2019, indicates a rise by 7.3 percent in crime against women, particularly sexual crimes and rape. While the share of cases reported under intimate partner violence is recorded at 30.9 percent, a sizeable 21.8 percent cases were filed under the category of ‘assault on women with the intent to outrage her modesty’ — which under section 354 refers to crimes that are sexual in nature.


How Women Make Travel Choices Based On Access, Affordability & Time

As per the 2011 Census, the data on the mode of transport that “other workers” (those not engaged in household industry or agricultural occupations) use to commute to work and the distance they travel is interesting. Among 140 million workers who do commute for work, the distances tend to be quite short. Women commute shorter distances on an average than men; the largest category of women commuters travels less than 1 km, while for men, the largest category travels 2 to 5 kms.

A recent study conducted for the Sakshamaa Initiative of Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3), by The Urban Catalysts, shows how little women commute to work and that for most, the mode of choice is walking.

A bleak reminder of how women are making choices based on access, affordability, and time.

In the state of Bihar, which reports a record low 6.9 percent urban female labour force participation rate (LFPR) compared to the national average of 22.3 percent; 42 percent working women commute for work, 22 percent work from home, and the rest do a combination of both.

For women, regardless of trip purpose, walking emerges as the primary travel mode, accounting for 57 percent trips.

The insights from this study illustrate how the threat of violence, poverty and finances determine women’s choice of commute, and access to opportunities.

What Safety Audits For Women Revealed

In the three locations of this study, Patna, Muzaffarpur and Gaya, women reported travelling less than men, make more trips by walking and shared Intermediate Public Transport (IPT). Contrary to global travel trends, where women travel more frequently than men, women in urban Bihar make 37 percent fewer trips per day.

Of the trips made, less than one-fifth (18 percent) of women’s trips are for work. Non-work-related trips, including education, purchases, household and care-work related trips account for 82 percent of women’s travel in urban Bihar.

A gender-disaggregated analysis across the three cities reveals that 57 percent of women’s trips are by walking, and 30 percent are by shared intermediate public transport.

While both women and men say that the unavailability of public transport, waiting duration, affordability and safety have led to them forego economic and educational opportunities, more women (27 percent) forego opportunities due to safety concerns as compared to men (14 percent).

A safety audit was also conducted in the three cities by Safetipin India, which revealed important concerns around walking environments, especially at night. The audits showed that 62 percent of Patna, 52 percent of Gaya, and 61 percent of Muzaffarpur have walk paths that are in very poor condition — unpaved, broken or blocked with parked vehicles, encroachments, extensions etc.


Women’s Concerns While Stepping Out Onto The Streets

While walking trips are predominant, and constitute around 40 percent of all trips by men and women, less than 15 percent of the road space is allocated for footpaths. Streets in Gaya and Muzaffarpur rarely have any space allocated for footpaths, and pedestrians often share road space with motorised vehicles. This is underscored in respondents’ perceptions of the walking environment.

Around two-thirds of study respondents perceive the walking environment to be poor in the day (64 percent) and in the night (67 percent).

Fast and rashly driven vehicles, narrow, high, discontinuous, encroached and uneven footpaths are the major causes for the poor perception of the walking environment, followed by water clogged streets, intentional rash driving by men in the presence of women and secluded neighbourhoods. Groups of men waiting at corners / shops are a concern for women as well.

Walking, Waiting Makes Women Easy Targets for Harassment

Of the women reporting harassment, 75 percent experienced harassment on streets and 19 percent at bus stops. 25 percent (1/4) face harassment daily, or at least once a week. The types of harassment included being stared at, being at the receiving end of lewd comments, being stalked and even being flashed/masturbated to.

37 percent of male participants in the study witnessed harassment of women. While 56 percent men reported accosting the perpetrator, 50 percent ignored the incidents.

Women participating in the study indicated little faith in support from others and therefore had to rely on themselves. 68 percent ignored the harassment, 40 percent accost the perpetrator, 8 percent ask by-standers, 9 percent reported it to the police. They expressed a higher preference for female police personnel and improving streets within neighbourhoods to improve the situation.


Way Forward

The study and safety audits strongly recommend the importance of targeted behavior change campaigns for building a positive, violence free environment for women – however these will take time to bear fruit. In the interim, improvements to infrastructure using a gender lens and gendered mobility indicators can yield results.

These include safe and reliable public transport with last mile connectivity, increasing bus stops, routes, frequency, capacity, and ensuring safety within transport can be considered immediately, improved infrastructure for walking and cycling and promoting women’s employment in the transport sector to push for reversing gender stereotypes – all of these measures can go a long way to improve the way women and girls experience public spaces and make ‘real’ choices in life.

(Madhu Joshi is a Senior Advisor- Gender and Governance, Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3). Devaki Singh is a Program officer- Gender and Governance, Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3). This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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