Will GCC’s Gender Lab project make Chennai safer for women and trans persons?

A look at the World Bank-supported Gender Lab project and how it proposes to enhance gender safety in public spaces in Chennai.

“The idea is to make Chennai, a welcoming city, as far as all genders are concerned,” says Raj Cherubal, CEO of Chennai Smart Limited. He was talking about the ‘Gender Lab’ initiative of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), which is aimed at improving the safety of women and other gender minorities in public spaces and ensure easy accessibility for all, in these spaces. In the words of Raj, it aims to make public places in Chennai more “gender sensitive”. 

On September 30th this year, the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank had formally approved a $150-million programme to assist the Tamil Nadu government in its vision of transforming Chennai into a world-class city. One of the objectives of this multi-million dollar programme, known as the Chennai City Partnership (CCP), is to improve urban mobility in the state capital, which also involves making urban spaces more accessible and safe for women, for which the GCC has been working on setting up the gender lab.

Read more: What the World Bank’s Chennai City Partnership project aims to achieve

What is a gender lab and what does it aim to achieve?

Sexual harassment against women and gender-based violence in public spaces are among the various issues contributing to gender inequality in India. Although, data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2020 states that Chennai has recorded fewer cases of crimes against women as compared to other cities in the country, a document from the World Bank suggests that there has been an increase in the number of cases of violence against women in the city between 2017 (642) and 2019 (729).

To go with this, a study conducted by Chennai based non-profit organisation, AWARE (Awareness for Wo+Men to Advocate their Rights and Equality), found that more than 50% of women they interviewed had faced some form of harassment while travelling on public transport in the city. This has resulted in making mobility extremely difficult for women, a majority of whom depend on public transportation for their regular commute.

Read more: Tips for women in Chennai to fight the stalking menace

The gender lab, which will bring together a committee of experts from various domains such as urban mobility, gender, public policy etc., aims to make Chennai safer for women by developing and strengthening policies and infrastructure. This would include improvement of public transport services after a proper evidence-based study of the ground realities, awareness creation and sensitisation of the public about gender safety and so on. 

Women commuting by suburban rail in Chennai
A study found that more than 50 percent of women they interviewed had faced some form of harassment while traveling on public transport in Chennai. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

“Whenever any project comes up in a city, there will be a bunch of words like “safety” and “accessibility” thrown in. There will also be a few campaigns on gender safety and it ends there. However, the gender lab has a more scientific and systematic approach on how to actually make public spaces safe and accessible for all,” says Raj. This, according to him, will be achieved through surveys, interviews with the public, discussions with various stakeholders, benchmarking and so on.

Functioning of the lab

The Gender Lab project, which was sanctioned by the TN government in October 2020, will be driven by the GCC and it will function with active cooperation with the state transport department as well as the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC).

The lab will consist of a team of 5 to 7 members who are specialists in the areas of gender, public policy, public transportation, Non Motorised Transport (NMT) and finance. They will guide various agencies with necessary framework and material for the implementation of development projects from a gender sensitive point of view.

According to Raj, the gender lab team will also be supported by a Voluntary Advisory Committee (VAC), which would be comprised of senior experts from different organisations and members from different socio-economic strata. The members of the VAC will be shortlisted by the organisations themselves, based on their expertise in the above mentioned areas. Their role would be to provide advisory support to the Gender Lab in identifying initiatives to form a holistic programme on women safety; making recommendations to strengthen existing key policies or develop new policies; knowledge-sharing and providing capacity-building training to government officials.

Funding of the project

According to a report by The New Indian Express, the Tamil Nadu government had sanctioned Rs 425.06 crore for the “Safe City Project for Women’s Safety in Public Spaces in Chennai” under the Nirbhaya scheme of the Central government. The state government has planned 13 projects under this scheme and the Gender Lab project is one among them, which will be implemented by the GCC with assistance from the World Bank.

‘Project for women must involve women as well’

One of the concerns that several women residents of Chennai have, regarding the project, is whether it will be implemented after taking into account the concerns and suggestions of women who have to regularly use public transport and public spaces in the city. 

“Frankly speaking, this news about a gender lab is new to me. I was shocked to see that so much money is being invested in this project and most of us have no idea about who will be in charge of such a project, what exactly they are going to do, who are the gender experts forming the team and so on,” says N Lalitha, an advocate with the Madras High Court, who specialises in cases relating to women and children.

Lalitha feels that if people like her, who are actively working for the cause of women and children, have not been informed about such a project, it’s very likely that ordinary women citizens will also have no information regarding a project that’s meant for them.

Concerns to be addressed

Addressing some of the major concerns of women with regard to public spaces, Lalitha says that the gender lab must ensure availability of basic amenities critical for women, such as hygienic public toilets. “Whenever women have to go out in public spaces, they are apprehensive about the lack of toilets or the condition of the few that may be available. Except for private malls or restaurants, there is a severe shortage of toilet facilities for women in public places. That needs key focus,” says the advocate. 

With accessibility and safety being the major idea behind the initiative, Lalitha raises another important point about 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 about accepting complaints from women.”

Read more: Have cities really made it easier for women to report crimes against them?

Will the spaces be friendly towards all genders?

Earlier this month, as part of a campaign against Gender violence, Prajnya, a non profit organisation based out of Chennai, conducted a roundtable discussion regarding public spaces being LGBTQI+ inclusive. 

One of the major points raised during the discussion was how public spaces in Chennai are not just restricted to beaches and parks but also includes libraries, museums, government healthcare facilities, places of worship and so on. The question remains whether these places will be accessible for people of all communities, including those with alternative sexualities, since, as the discussion pointed out, “these spaces are getting increasingly surveilled and hostile for anyone who does not conform to gender norms.”

It was stated that making public spaces friendly for members of the LGBTQI+ community would be a small step towards making them feel like they are seen and heard. Participants in the roundtable pointed out that when you work on making public spaces accessible for the trans folks, you are not just making spaces accessible for the most marginalised identity, but for everyone else, and that is how policies must be seen.

Whether the gender lab can make that happen is something that needs to be closely watched.

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