Policy and social change necessary to make Chennai safer for women

Chennai was recently ranked the top city for women in terms of safety. A panel discussion examined the ground reality and how the city can be made better for women.

Pritika has to travel from Royapuram to different parts of the city every day for work. Being a daily user of the government buses in Chennai, she says that she feels unsafe taking buses.

“When I enter a bus, my dignity and sense of space are immediately taken away. I have to give up on the assumption that I can regulate the space around me. Women’s safety in Chennai buses depends on the actions of the men on the bus. All that we can do is learn how to respond to such instances of harassment in public places. More often than not, the immediate response is to feel immense shame and silencing. It feels like I am creating an opportunity for groping to happen. If something did not happen on a particular day, then I consider myself lucky,” she says, adding that inaccessible bus stops and dysfunctional streetlights also make her feel more unsafe.

Pritika’s experience in public transport and public spaces, in general, summarises the lived and shared experiences of many women in Chennai.

In a bid to look at the safety of women in Chennai city and their ability to exercise their right to the city’s public spaces, Citizen Matters Chennai brought together an all-women panel on March 31.

The panel consisted of Vaishnavi and Steffi Cherian, Policy Expert and Communications Specialist with the Gender and Policy Lab of the Greater Chennai Corporation respectively; Jothilakshmi Sundaresan, an Advocate at Madras High Court who is passionate about women’s rights; Pavithra Sriram, an Urban Planner and a Designer based in Chennai who is a strong advocate for safe and inclusive cities and Pritika Meenakshisundaram, who is the Director of the Foundation for Intersectional Climate and Urban Sciences (FICUS) and a regular user of public transport in Chennai.

The panel discussed both the policy-level and societal-level changes that are required to make inclusive public spaces in Chennai.

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

Perception of women’s safety in Chennai

Speaking about perceptional safety, Pavithra says that walking on a road late at night might be a usual thing for a woman in Mumbai but it might not be the same case for a woman in Chennai. It is the infrastructure that bridges the perceptional gaps of safety. For this to happen, increasing the bus fleet to reduce the crowd in the buses and well-lit streets might help. Incorporating such designs in the Master Plan will help in the long run.

“However, it is also important to have more eyes on the road for better safety. It is also important for these eyes to be diverse enough. For women to have a safer space in public areas, they should start occupying and claiming the public spaces with more confidence,” she adds.

Pointing out the significant role of vernacular media in shaping the public perception of women, Vaishnavi says, “I learnt nothing about respecting women from our movies. The Tamil serials and movies should start rethinking and producing more sensitised content as we are a more pop-culture-obsessed society.”

“When a woman faces harassment, she tends to give into the shame and guilt from the conditioning of society. Providing education on shame resilience is needed alongside building small communities of people who reassure the survivors that it was not their fault. This will help the women in claiming public spaces with more confidence,” says Pritika.

Pointing out that the Gender Lab works largely at the institutional level, Vaishnavi explains how the institutional level changes feed into societal change.

“The frameworks, policies and best practices already exist but how are we going to translate them on the ground for the end users’ benefit? There lies the challenge. Chennai, being an already developed city, we are looking at what makes women safe in a bus stop while designing the new bus stops. Similarly, we look into the needs of women to make use of public spaces like parks,” she says.

mtc bus
Increasing the number of fleets will help in reducing the crowds in buses and thereby making them more breathable for women. Pic: Arun Ganesh/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.0)

“We also ran a campaign on MTC buses called ‘Speak Up! Speak Up!’ which focused on what we can do when we are harassed inside MTC buses. MTC buses were later installed with panic buttons. It is not only meant for women to use but also for men who are bystanders to respond to an issue when they witness it,” adds Vaishnavi.

Read more: Chennai women cycle to assert their right to the city

Gaps in operationalising laws on women’s safety

Explaining the gaps in operationalising the existing laws concerning women’s safety in Chennai, Jothilakshmi says, women live in three spaces – home, public places and workspace.

“When something happens at home, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 comes to our aid. When something happens at the workspace, we have Internal Complaints Committee to address the grievances. Unlike any other state in India, we have the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Woman Act, 1998 to address the harassment issues faced by women in public places. But, the question is on the functionality of all these laws,” says Jothilakshmi.

The trust that women have in agencies like police, advocates, and courts has to be measured to know how effectively the laws have been in favour of the survivors.

“This is because there have been cases where the survivors had to rely more on political power than judicial power. Many power equations play out in this space. Despite all this, we have to create avenues for women to easily approach the legal mechanism. This is a huge challenge we have now,” she says.

Wishlist for a safer Chennai for women

While the policy and societal changes required for a safer Chennai were discussed elaborately by the panellists, they also shared their wishlist for a more inclusive and safe city.

“If I am in a park, I would prefer having women security personnel over male security personnel. Similarly, women conductors and drivers in buses will also help,” says Pritika.

If we take the minority view and make it the majority view in how we view public places, I think an inclusive space can be made, she adds, explaining that a building infrastructure with a disability-centric focus will make the public spaces more inclusive for all.

“It is very rare to see a bench on a roadside where women simply sit and chill. You can often find men there but in reality, there is no such space for women. Women being able to take up space will be a good start,” says Pavithra.

“To live with dignity, safety and security is a fundamental right. If this is not happening, it means someone is not doing their job properly. We need more sensitised police, more protection officers, and adequate staff to support the judiciary as it plays a major role in upholding women’s safety. When a woman comes to a police station to file a harassment complaint, the perpetrator is protected by the whole system. No law can be greater than the cultural development of society,” says Jothilakshmi, adding that we need more women in a representative capacity in the policy-making spaces.

“I would like to walk on the street in a shirt I like and not think if I should wear this or not. I also wish women are more expressive on the streets and can be visible and not shrink themselves,” says Vaishnavi.

Follow the complete discussion here:

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