Can poor city planning aid and abet violence against women? Consider the fatal gang rape in New Delhi last December of the young woman referred to in the press as "Nirbhaya" ("fearless"). As an angry public poured into the streets to protest Nirbhaya's death, other brutal attacks in India captured international headlines. Recently, an 11-year old girl in Kolkata succumbed to her injuries after resisting her attacker, while a 7-year old was assaulted then dumped from a train travelling through Chhattisgarh.
As a result of the public outcry over the issue of women's safety, the government of India set up a high-level committee to examine possible legal reforms to halt sexual violence. Led by the late Chief Justice JS Verma, the committee called for sweeping changes to Indian law. Among its conclusions: "failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law."
Good governance and good city planning go hand in hand. Officials and urban planners could do more to design safe and inclusive cities, not just in India, but in much of the world. Designing cities with the dignity of its poorest and most vulnerable residents in mind is one small reparative step that make right what has gone so wrong in New Delhi and in so many other places.
For women and girls, public spaces too often equate with dangerous spaces. Everyday tasks such as fetching water can turn violent: fights break out at water tankers and public standposts, with women coming to blows; harassment and assault of women and girls is also common, with boys making crude comments and brushing up against them as they queue for water. Many public toilets are sanitary and safety minefields. In addition to overflowing wastewater, days with no water or electricity, broken or non-existent toilet stall doors, and high user fees, women are harassed by men and boys lurking around the facilities. Women would often rather defecate in open fields than face the indignity of being spied on in public bathrooms.
These problems may seem insurmountable, but they can be solved. One small, simple step is for local officials and service providers to literally walk in women's footsteps. Inspired by women's safety audits pioneered in Toronto, researchers at the New Delhi women's group Jagori are conducting neighbourhood walkabouts. They look at lighting, the way alleys are built, and the state of public facilities, including communal water sources and public toilets. They encourage city officials to walk with community residents, who point out substandard facilities and the areas in which they feel unsafe.
These safety audits bring to light previously overlooked issues, such as how poor infrastructure and urban design can discriminate against women and create unsafe environments. And they record the subtle, and not so subtle, forms of harassment women and girls face when they attempt to access essential urban services.
Research has shown that educating people to understand and act upon their rights as citizens also helps. For example, funds meant for urban service delivery in resettlement colonies on the outskirts of New Delhi were found not to have been allocated as intended. Residents used India's Right to Information Act to access public records and subsequently demanded the right to water, sanitation, and garbage services from local authorities.
Social change does not happen overnight, but progress can be made in the short term. Practical steps can be taken now to create urban spaces that do not put citizens at undue risk. In many cities, this means planning for safe and equitable delivery of essential urban services – water, sanitation, waste management, and public transportation – and planning with the poor and vulnerable, rather than for them, or against them. It means agencies and citizens working together toward a common goal: good urban governance and safe and inclusive urban spaces and services for all.
Carrie Mitchell is an assistant professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo; Sara Ahmed is a senior program specialist at Canada's International Development Research Centre, based in New Delhi; and Suneeta Dhar is the executive director of Jagori, a non-governmental organization providing counselling and support services for women, also based in New Delhi.