Infrastructure and women’s safety in India – observations from the British Academy

Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Photo credit: Caroline Knowles. December 2018

Caroline Knowles, Programme Director of British Academy ‘Cities and Infrastructure Fund’ through which the DIVAW project is funded, visited our fieldsite in Thiruvananthapuram in December 2018. She describes her experience and observations, with Susan, our local research assistant from Sakhi over the course of a few days.

Maps of Safety and Danger

I am visiting a low-income neighbourhood in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala with the local research assistant from Sakhi, Susan Sukanya. Susan has been showing local women how to use an app called Safetipin, while walking with them and interviewing them about their feelings of safety and danger. Their maps of safe and unsafe places and the thinking behind them are revealed by the research.

Unlit bus stands and a lack of joined up transport for women travelling between home and work are particularly frightening. Women are often groped on buses or approached by men while they wait at bus stands. Poor street lighting, especially around the bio-waste plant at the back of the Community Centre in their neighbourhood, which has no electricity or water, provides a cover of darkness where young men gather and women feel afraid. The pond, used for bathing and washing, where men hang out and drink, is another danger spot for the women.

Infrastructure

It soon become clear that conceptions of safety and danger are intertwined with deficiencies in basic infrastructure: deficiencies in provision of clean water supplies that force women onto the streets to fetch it, deficiencies in waste management, in provision of joined up public transport, in the difficulties of inhabiting crowded living space and in unreliable electricity supplies, all of which make women’s lives more difficult, forcing them into public spaces in order to make daily life work somehow.

The research team also set about reviewing the state of street lighting in the community, logging its gaps, with a view to suggesting improvements. There is street lighting, but it needs monitoring and maintenance, like all bits of infrastructure, or it stops working. Their data helps the women make a case to the local committee. Lighting the areas where men and boys congregate at night would make the women feel safer.

Domestic Violence and Safety


Sakhi and women of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Photo credit: Caroline Knowles. December 2018

 Asking women about public safety quickly led Susan to discover that the women are concerned about violence at home. In places where public and private domains overlap and life is lived on the street, distinctions between public and private are rather fluid.

As Susan and I talk to Aabha (not her real name) she tells disturbing stories of her husband’s drinking and violence to wards her and their three children, how he will not allow her work, and demands that meals be cooked in the middle of the night while she tries to sleep. Following horrific episodes of violence Aabha, supported by women neighbours and the Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre appealed to police protection and had her husband legally excluded from their home. She is rebuilding her life as an independent woman, working in a canteen while paying off his loans in the hope that he will leave her alone. Meanwhile she lends practical support to women in a similar position.  

Recalibrating Masculinity

As Susan and I listen to Aabha’s stories about her abusive husband her 20 year-old son, who has been lying stretched out on a bed frame beside us wrapped tightly in a blanket that completely covers him, wakes up and reaches for one of his mobile phones. Even if he didn’t overhear our conversation, he has on many occasions experienced his father’s violence. Aabha is acutely aware that if public and private violence is to decrease, the next generation of men must be different.

Change

Aabha thinks that if the community centre could be fixed up with electricity and water supplies – as she and other women are petitioning the community council to do – the young men could go inside and use computers or learn something that would make them more employable rather than drinking in the darkness. Someone could also speak to them about treating women more respectfully and behaving better towards them in public and private spaces. Church and school in Susan’s mind could be enlisted in these small but significant changes.

The energy and initiative from the project‘s focus on women’s safety is making a small difference in supporting the resolve of these strong women activists to demand small but significant practical changes in the built environment that would improve their lives. Research offers the resource of an archive of collective opinion gathered through a rigorous methodology to enhance its credibility with authorities.  Research that taps into and supports grass roots activism is a useful tool in community hands.

Further reading:

1. https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/projects/cities-disconnected-infrastructures-violence-against-women

2. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/27/india-abuse-women-human-rights-rape-girls

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