Questions for India this Anti-Street Harassment Week

We need to recognise women have a right to use public spaces as do men.

 |  3-minute read |   13-04-2016
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Every year, since 2011, Anti-Street Harassment Day amplifies and brings attention to the issue of violence in public spaces. While Indian mainstream media has focused on women's harassment in public transport and public spaces recently, a number of organisations like Jagori and Akshara have advocated for safer cities for more than a decade.

We still have a long way to go, but what can we remind ourselves this International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which is from April 10-16?

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Street harassment and brutal forms of violence are connected

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) noted that Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes against women increased from 8.8 per cent in 2007 to 9.4 per cent in 2011 and 11.4 per cent in 2014.

Specifically, the reporting of crimes related to rape, eve-teasing, voyeurism, sexual harassment on the street, at the work place and on public transportation increased by 175 per cent from 74,756 in 2010 to 1,30,719 in 2014 - one crime every four minutes.

However, it is widely acknowledged that violence against women is under-reported. In fact, street harassment is normalised into women's everyday lives and structures their movement through a constant sense of insecurity.

For example, taking a longer walking route to a destination or wearing ear phones to avoid uncomfortable stares or cat calls, or traveling with a companion after dark.

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women-bus-bd_041316052958.jpg Street harassment structures women's movement through a constant sense of insecurity.

Brutal forms of violence such as rape that has captured our imagination, must be linked to these ordinary, daily acts of violence such as staring, groping and others.

Women have a right to use public spaces

The fear of street harassment often translates into self-restraint or protectionist concerns, which further constrain women's mobility. Women are held responsible for inviting violence - that they "asked for it" or should have stayed at home or that they were somehow less respectable than "other" women [Shaw, Andrew, et al, 2013].

Much of the work to eliminate violence against women focused initially on domestic and intimate partner violence; and women's risk of violence and insecurity in public space remained unarticulated by policy [Shaw, Andrew, et al, 2013].

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The concept of women's safety must be defined as involving "strategies, practices, and policies with the goal of reducing gender-based violence and women's fear or insecurity of violence" [Shaw and Capobianco, 2004].

It needs to recognise that women have a right to use public spaces as do men, and that their lives should not be restricted by fear or actual violence.

From "harassment" to "living the city"?

Feminists have argued for women's right to loiter in the city, ie to fundamentally question the idea that women's presence in public spaces is acceptable only when they have a purpose. Such an approach maintains that the rising crimes against women must be acknowledged and that there is a need for safe and accessible public transportation systems and spaces.

It also acknowledges women's time poverty, which severely restricts their leisure time and might compel them to rethink public spaces - not only as parks and gardens but as streets, markets or infrastructure nodes in informal settlements.

But it hopes, that in our quest to create safer and desirous pleasurable streets and public spaces, we begin to collect gender disaggregated data, map how different groups of men and women use, not use or are constrained to use the city in different ways.

And that we imagine a city of diverse groups of women resting, sitting, talking, strolling, eating, protesting - a city full of possibilities.

Writer

Sonal Shah Sonal Shah @abaezgrace

The writer is an urban planner and architect.

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