Friday, December 24, 2010

Prajnya's first Women's Safety Audit

At a workshop organised by Jagori earlier this year, several organisations from across India learnt about Jagori's work on women's safety in public spaces in Delhi. A key objective of this workshop, which I attended, was to demonstrate the usefulness of the safety audit tool as a way to measure women's safety. Since then, we've been keen to pilot this in Chennai and decided to do so as part of this year's campaign.

Very simply, this is how a women's safety audit works:

You choose an area - either residential or a public space like a market or a mall or even a main road. A team of 5-6 members (primarily residents of that area) walk the area, looking to identify various factors that make it either safe or unsafe for women. This could include street lights, the presence/absence of hawkers/shops (who might respond if a woman needs help), pavements, empty lots with men hanging about, etc etc. In addition, the team also plots the area on a map, takes photos, videos and does spot interviews with people.

Moreover, one of the major objectives is to find ways to integrate issues of women's safety and sexual harassment into urban planning. This is why the walk actually looks at several aspects of urban infrastructure which are common to men and women - roads, lights, police support, etc etc. The idea is that if a city is safe for women, it is safe for everyone else too (including say, the disabled, for example). Equally, we believe that it is important to expand the idea of safety as something more than a law and order issue to include all these other factors.

We decided to audit a select area in Besant Nagar as a first step, for two reasons: the combination of a popular public space (the beach) and a residential area was particularly interesting and secondly, we identified an enthusiastic group, thanks to the enthusiastic involvement of Sharadha Shankar, a local resident of the area. Over the next few weeks, we identified the specific area we wanted to audit, revised the checklist shared by Jagori and explained the process to the team.

A report based on the preliminary findings is pasted below. Prajnya will now share the findings with relevant authorities and we also hope to expand the audit to other parts of the city.

Women’s Safety Audit, Besant Nagar

Preliminary Report

Who we are: A group of local residents living in the Besant Nagar area, along with a small team from Prajnya.

What we did: Undertook and carried out a women’s safety audit in select areas of Besant Nagar on Monday, 29 November 2010.

Why we did this: The safety audit is a tool used in several cities around the world to understand whether a particular area is safe for women. The audit helps local residents assess their own areas from the point of view of infrastructure, looking at roads and streets, lights, availability of public toilets, etc. The audit is based on the premise that a city safe for women is safe for everyone.

This area was chosen for a specific reason: it is a residential area but with a well-used and busy public place (the beach).

The area we covered: 5th Avenue, 32nd, 33rd and 34th Cross Street, Besant Nagar.

What we found:

  1. While the area is generally considered safe during the day, several of the inner streets are considered unsafe after dark, especially 32nd Cross Street.
  2. Lighting is a major concern:
    1. The lights only come on at around 6pm, by which time it is already dark.
    2. The only source of light, before the street lights come on, is from shops, who switch on their lights between 5.30pm and 5:45pm.
    3. Several of the existing street lights do not function.
    4. The light posts are so high up that they are hidden by the trees. Therefore the light is very dim.
  3. There have been a few incidents of chain snatching, all targeting women, in recent months. These have taken place both at night and during the day.
  4. Several of the footpaths are not accessible for the disabled or those with prams.
  5. There is a run-down Electricity Board building behind the Metro Water complex. The windows are broken and residents report seeing men gather there, drinking and using the place as a toilet.
  6. On the three inner lanes, despite several houses, there are few people on the road.
  7. A section of the playground on 34th Cross Street is cordoned off with tall aluminium sheets. There is virtually no lighting here, and this is a definite unsafe area.

What we recommend (based on our preliminary findings):

  1. In ‘winter’ months, the lights need to come on earlier, at 5:30pm at least.
  2. The existing street lights need to be fixed and new ones added on some of the inner lanes.
  3. The height of the light posts could be lowered, so that they offer better light and are not blocked by the trees.
  4. Something is done about the Electricity Board building: the windows are re-fixed, the building cordoned off or security appointed.

This audit was organised as part of the 2010 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence.

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