Women of Chennai speak up through the work of the Gender and Policy Lab

The Gender and Policy Lab has been working towards making the voices of women of Chennai heard in key policy decisions and to create an equitable city.

“You are not allowed to go out after 6 pm”. This is perhaps one of those lines that almost every woman, not just in Chennai or Tamil Nadu but across India, would have heard through the ages. The often-cited reason for this is that public places are not safe for women post-sundown. 

Backing up is refrain is a recent perception study conducted by the Gender and Policy Lab in Chennai that found that women in the city generally avoid venturing out after 6 pm. The study also highlights that only 16-17% of women’s travel is for social and recreational reasons and that 36% of women preferred to travel in groups as a safety measure. 

This is the outcome of generations of conditioning, social stigma and the increasing crime rates against women in society.

Challenges faced by women are often overlooked in the government’s policy-making for infrastructural projects and other decisions impacting the public. To remedy this, the Gender and Policy Lab has been conducting studies and taking initiatives to address issues that impact women at the policy level. 

The Gender and Policy Lab has been formed as part of the Chennai City Partnership Program and the Nirbhaya Program. Housed within the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), the lab has been operational since February 2022. The entity has been supporting Greater Chennai Corporation to review various policies provide recommendation notes for gender inclusivity in its infrastructural projects and services, conduct workshops to build awareness amongst staff, and conduct campaigns to promote women’s access and work in the city.

Gender Lab’s steps to improve accessibility

One of the major concerns raised when the Gender Lab was set up was whether policy suggestions would be implemented after taking into account the concerns and inputs of women.

Since the use of public transport and presence in public spaces is a key driver of women’s participation in city life, the Gender Lab has been engaged in carrying out various studies to assess how these spaces can be made safer and more accessible for women. 

Consultants of Gender and Policy Lab say that every time a study, survey or safety audit is carried out by the Lab, users of the infrastructure such as lights, parks, bus shelters, roads, railway stations, transit points, subways, foot-over-bridges, who are primarily women, are consulted to understand their feedback, suggestions and remarks about the said infrastructure.

Accordingly, a Baseline Study On Women’s Perception Regarding Access And Safety In Public Spaces And Public Transport In Chennai City was conducted by the lab. The study covered a sample of 3,000 persons in Chennai. For this, a total of 1402 women, 565 men and 100 transgenders were interviewed at the household level and 1030 women at public places (local streets, popular markets, religious places, parks, beaches, near educational institutions) and transport junctions (bus stops, auto stands, metro stations and suburban railways). 

The qualitative consultations also included 17 Focus Group Discussions and deliberative discussions. These discussions were held with school girls, elderly women, women with disabilities, transgender persons, homemakers, blue-collared, and white-collared workers, college girls, and women engaged in daily wage work.

The objective of the perception study includes:

a) Access and safety in public spaces in Chennai

b) Safety and satisfaction of using different modes of transport

c) Benefits of free transportation

d) Experience of availing the services of existing GRM

e) Solutions for improving safety

“The findings of the study will be used to develop recommendations for different departments and relevant stakeholders,” say the consultants of Gender and Policy Lab.

Gender lab
The Gender and Policy Lab conducted a safety audit in Chennai with the fellows from the Citizens for Safe Mobility. Pic Courtesy: The Gender and Policy Lab

While speaking about the accessibility to public places, women have also pointed out the need to ensure the availability of basic amenities critical for women, such as hygienic public toilets. Except for private malls or restaurants, there is a severe shortage of toilet facilities for women in public places. 

When asked how the Gender Lab is planning to address these issues, the Consultants say, “GCC is working actively on making toilets accessible and clean for everyone. GCC internally commissioned a study to understand the status of toilets, which found that the maintenance of the toilets has been a concern more than the availability. Following this, the GCC has commissioned new projects to address the issues. The Lab has provided inputs for the same and it will be undertaking periodic studies on the usage of toilets across the city to understand these concerns.”

With accessibility and safety being the major ideas behind the initiative, women also point out improving the need for easy accessibility for women to police stations. Even today, a woman is not confident enough to approach a police station to give complaints or even the stations, for that matter, are not always receptive and supportive of accepting complaints from women. Speaking on this, the Consultants say that the Lab has a Working Group with members from different government departments including Greater Chennai Police (GCP).

“GCP has been active in providing recommendations and participating in activities organised by the Lab. An exercise has already been done with the police to understand the response time of 100. In similar efforts, the Lab will be figuring out activities to engage with the police. Being able to easily access police stations is also a larger issue which requires judicial reforms and the Gender and Policy Lab provides inputs to State Policies too when consulted,” they add.

Inclusive fellowship at the Gender Lab to enable participation

To bring in more voices of women into the policy-making fold,  the Lab also offers a fellowship programme – ‘Citizens for Safe Mobility’, in which 22 Fellows (13 women + 8 men + 1 trans person) including students, professors, lawyers, journalists, UPSC and Defence service aspirants, were involved in conducting a safety audit in 47 locations across 7 clusters in Chennai. 

The Delhi-based social enterprise, Safetipin along with their Chennai-based partner non-profit organisation Prajnya were the technical and on-ground implementation partners respectively.

The objective of the fellowship was:

  • To engage and train citizens on urban issues through a gender lens
  • To open up the work of public institutions like Greater Chennai Corporation for citizen involvement and reinforce their connection to the community and the city
  • To enrich the existing data on the accessibility and efficacy of city amenities and infrastructure from the point of view of marginalised end-users

By the end of the fellowship, the fellows presented their group findings to department officials from GCC, GCP, CUMTA, MTC, Railways, and Highways.

Read more: Seven long hours in Chennai police stations to file a sexual harassment complaint

Madrasin Pengal Walk

One of the key findings from the perception study points out that women in Chennai generally avoid venturing out after 6 pm. This finding prompted the Lab to conceive the night walk for women – ‘Madrasin Pengal Walk’ in partnership with Madras Inherited and The Equals Project. The walk was conducted on October 7, 2023, with the following objectives:

  • learn and talk about women who were pioneers in different fields and who have contributed to building the city of Madras
  • build a programme with women public participants to walk and occupy public spaces together at night in an effort to build a safe and inclusive city
  • build programmes with a regular public interface, especially with women and girls

Around 30 women from different walks of life participated in the walk. “As most of our lives are consumed in our day-to-day work, we hardly find time to do any recreational activities. Years of conditioning also stop us from even thinking of venturing outside our homes during late evenings. This walk not only helped us to learn about different women who have contributed to the growth of Madras but also made us rethink our contribution to the society,” says a homemaker who participated in the walk.

While the walk was conducted in areas around Adyar, women from North Chennai and resettlement areas pointed out that their localities are more unsafe than areas like Adyar. The Consultants of the Lab say that their plan is to consider a similar walk in North Chennai. 

“The Lab has previously conducted a safety audit in Semmencherry resettlement colony with government officers and civil society organisations to understand gaps. Safety audits require you to walk in a specific neighbourhood mapping and understanding the status of different safety parameters in the area,” they add.

Read more: North Chennai roads turn into an obstacle course for commuters

Gender Lab’s consultation with children

Most often, when the government conducts consultation meetings, be it for any project, children are not included in the picture.

“School students are among the many people who access roads and public infrastructure on a daily basis. More importantly, it is imperative that there are adequate and good quality amenities provided for them, in order to ensure that they are safe and comfortable. They are considered key stakeholders,” says the Consultants, adding that the Gender Lab took on the opportunity to propose and conduct a half-day Stakeholders Consultation workshop for students from 10 schools in the neighbourhood of the Tondiarpet Package to listen to their grievances.

The students mapped the safe and unsafe spaces and spaces of joy. Of a total of 43 students, 23 were girls and 20 were boys.

Some of the takeaways from the discussion with the students are as follows:

  • The students pointed out that there is a lack of pedestrian facilities, unregulated speed, improper signal regulation on roads
  • The students proposed better zebra crossings, speed bumps and more cover in public transport for a better commute
  • Most of the female students stated that they were not allowed to go out of their houses after 6 pm
  • A student with special needs highlighted how change in levels of the ground makes his commute unpleasant while he likes taking strolls on the road looking at metro bridges

Baby steps towards an inclusive city

Speaking on the impact of the works of the Lab so far, the Consultants say that the Lab is now an institution liaising between government departments, civil society organisations and the public. The Lab has been able to leverage 1913 data, safety audit data and study reports to study dark spots. GCC Electrical Department has been able to rectify lighting issues in a systematic manner owing to these inputs.

“The Lab reviews policies, toolkits and ToRs for other departments and agencies to ensure it brings in a gender component at the planning stage like the State Women Policy, State Elderly Policy and SDGs for Tamil Nadu. The Third Master Plan for Chennai being developed will incorporate gender,” they add.

Further speaking on their future plans, they add that they will focus on the top 10 bus routes frequented by women to understand the infrastructural requirements for 250 bus stops and advise the corporation on the same. The Lab will also conduct campaigns on bystander intervention with GCP, and MTC. This apart, the Lab is also to develop a guidebook manual on gender needs incorporating the expectations of what young women and girls need in a city.

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