This time I spoke to Sanjana Nagesh, a 22 year, college student in Australia studying marketing and she has truly cracked her course. If you don't believe me, just check out BrownGirlGang (BGG). It’s a space that features inspiring and badass South Asian women around the world. The mission of this page is to inspire people and blur cultural boundaries. Keep reading to know more about Sanjana, her views and what motivates her to keep BGG going. Q. What is your perception of women’s safety in today’s day and age? I think that it’s alright but there’s definitely still a long way to go. It’s all comparative and also depends on which part of the world you’re in; for example, in terms of independence, we can do a lot more than previous generations could. In my ajji’s (grandmother’s) time, basic things like education were tough but I’ve been lucky enough to attend my university and feel safe in that environment. There is also so much work to be done to achieve universal safety for women and Safetipin is an amazing initiative to make women's safety more accessible and safer, in a scalable way. Q. Do you use public transport? What is your view about it? I use public transport a lot and it’s helpful and safe to an extent, as it depends on the time and location of your travels. If people are going to work or university during peak hours of the day, then it’s very different from travelling out to events in the evening or at night. I also see a huge difference between the way my male friends approach public transport in general. I think as girls we tend to take more precautions, especially in terms of public transport at night. For me personally, after 9 pm I would feel safer taking an Uber or a cab. Q. What according to you is a safe space? A safe space is a place in the public domain where you can go from point A to point B without feeling threatened in any way. For me, a safe space would have a lot of people and in an orderly fashion. I would also relate a safe space with being a place that is well lit. For example, if there are shops on a street then they provide lighting and a sense of safety, as well as the presence of cars on the road. Basically, anything to keep the area busy. An example of a safe space that comes to mind is the beach. There are always lots of people, shops and there are tourists too which adds to its safety. Q. What differences do you see as a woman in Bangalore and Australia? Both these places have very different environments. It’s hard to say as I have lived in Sydney my whole life and only travel to Bangalore once a year for a couple of weeks, so my knowledge of Bangalore’s public space is much more limited in comparison. As a result, when I’m in Bangalore I’m much less independent and I can’t go anywhere I want like I do back home in Australia. In Australia, I know the road rules, train schedule, etc. I understand Sydney since it’s where I’ve spent my whole life. When I go to Bangalore, my dad will tell me if a place is safe or not - I don't know about the specific areas on my own. Things like how to cross the road can't be learned online, it just comes from living there. One of the biggest differences between Bangalore and Australia that I feel exists is the population and that ends up playing a huge role in the kind of public spaces that exist. Australia has a tiny population in comparison, so there are less people walking near you in public spaces. In contrast, when I’m in Bangalore I can’t be sure of the intent when someone brushes against me or stands next to me without reason. I’m unsure of whether it’s malicious or a mistake. That being said, I definitely don't think any place is perfect. In the past I, have definitely called a friend or family member if I am walking alone at night, or I just walk into a shop to make sure no one is following me. The saddest part is that every girl has a story like this to share, regardless of which part of the world she is in. Q. What according to you are the biggest stereotypes that brown women face? One of the biggest stereotypes brown women face (especially overseas) is that they are seen as one-dimensional personalities. Many people don’t understand that we can be a combination of cultures, experiences and opinions. I have desi friends who exclusively watch Bollywood movies and only listen to Hindi songs and I also have desi friends who never do. Whether someone goes to the temple every weekend or hasn’t been in a while, it’s completely up to them and shouldn’t make anyone more or less ‘brown’. It doesn't matter where you fall on the cultural spectrum, you can be whoever you want. I’ve received both types of feedback on my Instagram account, that it’s not showcasing enough contemporary brown culture as well as it’s not showcasing enough traditional brown culture. That makes no sense to me! I think everyone should have the freedom to be completely themselves. Q. Tell us a bit about your experience with BrownGirlGang. BGG has taught me so much. Discovering so many awesome and fierce South Asian women on a daily basis is so amazing. This is something I know I’m passionate about. Even if I’m tired on the train back from university, I take out time to post and engage. I think the reason why BGG has got the traction that it has is because of the lack of representation that existed prior. It was something I started, with no expectation of it reaching so many people, but I’m happy that it did. We’re an accidental sisterhood that got created, and we’re only going to get bigger! Q. Do you have any advice you’d want to give young women? It’s important to remember that each of us have our own stories, and that we should share it with one another. We should openly talk about our fears and have conversations that help better the environment we live in. It’s scary to be alone sometimes and so we should be there for each other. I think whilst women’s safety is better than it was 50 years ago, it still isn’t enough in terms of us as human beings. When we’re overwhelmed or just going through a lot, it’s nice to be able to turn to other women going through the same thing. That’s one of the reasons why I love BGG - it’s a group of women supporting women and is full of good vibes only!
One more reference to “Khadar Ki Ladkiyan”! We know that it was a great learning experience for the girls but now we want to talk about what an amazing experience it was for the people working with the girls. We’ve put up interviews with the girls and thought it would be interesting to know about more about the project from someone working with the girls. So, let me introduce Sarita to you! She was with the girls even before the project started and has been a pillar at Jagori for the last 2 decades. She’s fun, insightful and extremely welcoming to talk to. Keep scrolling to know a little about her career journey and the amazing work she does. Q. Can you tell me about your work with Jagori? I have been with Jagori since 2000. When I joined, I was a part of the resource centre which included, but was not limited to community research work, counselling and documentation. Soon after I joined, I also got involved with the protection of women who had faced any form of violence which was a new experience and a very sensitive one. In the beginning, we at Jagori, used to only work with women as we thought they were our target audience, but soon realised that that was not enough to make a change. We had to work with everyone so that they understood the problems and the extent to which it affects a woman’s life. So, we started working with boys, men as well as young people. We always wanted to teach and have people understand how violence can occur and how there is such a thing as domestic violence. It may seem so obvious to us but there were a lot of people from urban villages, resettlement colonies, etc., that we met who were raised in environments where this was not taught. Due to this, we thought it necessary to educate more people on this matter. It was integral for us to understand the community and create a proper relationship with them before trying to get them to make a change. We wanted to talk to them about gender based problems but before getting into that directly, we spoke to them about the condition of the toilets, their houses, their community, the quality of drinking water etc. This way we built a rapport with them and understood their concerns and problems in the community. It was only after this that we explained to them what violence is as well as its impact. In the beginning, they didn’t know all the terms for different forms of harassment or its repercussions. They all knew what “ched chad” (eve-teasing) was, but it was more of a joke to them. So, we taught the boys that troubling girls on the street for fun wasn't okay and explained the same to the girls. We also had to teach them about their rights on leaving school. For example, the young girls in the community didn't know that they had an option to stay in school or that they had the right to even if their families were against it. We had to teach them that they had a voice and they should fight for it. Q. Can you tell me about the work with the Khadar girls and of the overall project? In 2002-2003, the people living in Hanuman Camp, Alaknanda and South Delhi were relocated to Khadar by the government. We had an entire research project to understand their migration and how it affected their opportunities. That’s when I first met some of the girls who were a part of the Aana Jaana (Coming and Going) project. When we started doing safety audits with the young girls of Madanpur Khadar, we realised how big a problem mobility is for them. So along with AHRC, Kings College London, Ayona Dutta and Safetipin, we started a project with the young girls of Khadar. We took out time to understand their public spaces, what they understand of fear and what their perception of safety is. With this project, we got a much deeper understanding of the girls and their lives which was an excellent experience for me. These were the girls we had already done work with before so to see them in this light was new and enlightening. I saw them grow and gain so much confidence through the course of this project. 10 of the girls in the project had a job so it was a sort of barrier to the project. They had to find time for the project after work and on the weekends, which was tough but they managed it very well. Once they put their mind to succeeding in both work and the project, there was nothing that could stop them. They were so dedicated and it was amazing to be a part of their journey. Another aspect of the project was the Whatsapp diaries. Through this the girls would document their journeys around the city. For example, if someone was being inappropriate in the bus, they wouldn't be able to speak up at times, but they would vent out in the Whatsapp group. It was a safe space for them. After this, we started with the story mapping part of the project which was displayed as a story of the journey in the city at the Mandi House Metro Station in Delhi for a month. The final part of the project, which gained the most traction, was the rap song, ‘Khadar Ki Ladkiyan’. The girls really put in a lot of their personal time and a lot of them even faced some problems at home because of it. That, however, did not stop them. They were so motivated to tell their story and take control of their lives that it was great to see. I am happy to have been a part of the project.
Ayona Datta, author of “The Illegal City: Space, Law and Gender in a Delhi Squatter Settlement”, and Busk Medal awardee from Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) is Reader of Urban Futures (Associate Professor) in King’s College, London. She has a background in architecture, environmental design and planning. We worked with her on the #AanaJaana project which has created a fruitful partnership between us. She is a dedicated, hard working and an extremely bright person who is super fun to work with and talk to. I had a great time speaking with her for this interview, I feel like I have learned a lot! Keep scrolling to know more about Ayona, her journey and the challenges she has faced. Q. Can you tell me your interests, in research and work? My research interests include postcolonial urbanism and the examination of cities in the global south through the lens of gender. I have been researching gender power dynamics and how it is experienced from the household level to the physical forms of cities – its politics, social and cultural dynamics. Recently, I have been examining the politics of smart cities and the intersection between the digital, political, social and physical processes in the same. I want to address these issues by looking at disadvantaged groups be it caste, colour, gender etc. My interest in smart cities has mainly been because of the shift to digital technologies to govern the city which we have seen in the last few years. There is a digital platform for everything and it’s really interesting for me to see as an academic - the growth and impact of online spaces. It’s also very intriguing to see the impact digitization has on physical spaces. Q. I know that you grew up in Delhi and are currently raising your daughters in London. What is your experience with that? Also, I know about your busy work schedule, how do you maintain the work-life balance? This is an interesting question and I can say that it’s very different growing up in India and in the UK. What really works for me and is a key factor in me being able to do the work that I want, is that I have a very supportive partner. We are both from India and we make it a point to visit home each year at least once. Even though I live outside, my work is on India because that’s something I have always connected with and I think that feeling reaches my girls as well. My work involves a lot of travel and so at times, it is difficult to manage with other responsibilities. Bringing my children up outside India is a challenge at times because they are not embedded in all the cultural norms and practices that I grew up with. But it is also not that different. As a Bengali growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, I have had to deal with questions about difference, particularly in languages and food. For my girls, it’s about racial difference, skin colour and religion. I talk to them about difference and try to make them feel proud of their identity, and who they are. Q. How did you get interested in gender and urbanism? In my final year research project for my Architecture degree, I decided to work with women construction labourers. Little did I know at that time, that this project would help define the rest of my career. Going in, I had no idea what I was in for. For my project, I was supposed to address the issue from an architectural front and not a social one. So, I went in, with no social research methods training, and got confronted by so many issues all at once, like poverty, labour, exploitation, children on site etc., with no guidelines on how to deal with it. Having grown up in a middle-class family, this was a real eye-opener for me. I had initially planned a survey but ended up throwing it away quite early on in the project. I started staying in with the workers, eating with them in the evening and spending time with them so that I could understand their lives better. I used to spend the day in Nehru place which was where they were building the big hotels and offices and then go back in the buses with them to the labour camps near Surajkund. My parents would be very worried but I think it was this experience that really shaped me. When I finally presented the project to my faculty, I was repeatedly questioned on how I had incorporated architectural concerns in my project and I had no answer. In the end, my supervisor supported me and said something that I keep with me till date. It was that as architects and planners, addressing issues of gender and labour exploitation in the production of our cities is our moral responsibility. Though this project was an eye-opening one, my real academic inroads in issues of gender was when I started my PhD. I wanted to focus on women in slums but I was told that that was social work and not architecture and that’s when I got into the interdisciplinary field of human geography. It’s a path I had never thought about but I opened up to it to raise questions on bigger issues including gender-based violence. My architectural education was very modernist and we were taught to solely focus on the design. I agree that you can’t design your way out of gender-based violence but architecture needs to be embedded in a social context and respond to social and political imperatives. I was lucky to have had good mentors and be introduced to feminist geography, sexualized labour and conversations on gender identity and performance during my PhD days in Arizona. I got into postcolonial urbanism towards the end of my PhD because I was looking at the history of gender power relationships in the building of cities, which showed me the links between present and colonial laws and practices. Q. What has been your deepest insight from the #AanaJaana project? And how do you think the girls have dealt with the outcomes of the project? For me, the project was a really big learning experience. Before starting, I had not understood the paradoxical nature of the urban periphery in Madanpur Khadar. The girls that we worked with were relatively advantaged as digitally able millennials when compared to the other families of the locality but were still marginalized in terms of transport and basic amenities (like water). The women of Khadar have different boundaries and expectations as compared to men in Khadar as well as women of the middle class. One incident that I vividly remember is when one of the girls who used to have a very strict curfew would sneak out of her house to come for the video shooting. One time her brother came out to the main road and insisted she go home immediately. She stayed strong and refused because she wanted to shoot the hip-hop video. We encouraged her to go home for her safety but she stood her ground. That really moved me. Gender empowerment is more than just a political issue, it's emerges from micro experiences such as this one. On a bigger level, this project and the song (“Khadar Ki Ladkiyan”) have become international. King’s College presented it on their website recently and that’s great exposure. The girls have been called “Gully Girls” in the media and they have challenged so many things like the masculinized form of rap music and the condition of their environment. They have gained a lot of visibility through this project and I think that’s great because visibility can be a path to legitimacy. The girls always told me that through the #AanaJaana project, they learned a lot about gender and found a safe and comfortable space for leisure. Working with them has been so enriching and insightful. My hope for this project is that it carries on as a long-term project and reaches many more women and girls because it has shown the transformational power of the arts. Q. How do you think the issue of women’s safety has evolved over the last decade? Since I don’t reside in India, I somewhat feel like an outsider to the Indian feminist movement, but I definitely identify with it even though I’m not deeply embedded in it. However, on a bigger note, I think a lot has changed since the Nirbhaya case. The ground level of harassment has changed. For example, when I was in college, it was war on the streets. Now I feel, and this is my personal experience, that men are slightly more cautious of their actions in public places. The #MeToo movement helped spread awareness about sexual harassment and allowed women to talk about it without the burden of proof. But, the #MeToo movement has not really touched any of the Khadar girls or women and girls of the working classes. It has largely remained a middle-class movement. Even if the women in working classes decided to take to social media, they run a greater risk of cyber bullying and harassment for which they don't yet have the support or confidence to deal with. I know we have come a long way with sexual harassment and opening up about it but there’s a lot more we can do to make the entire movement more inclusive.
I got the amazing opportunity to speak with Dr. Nandita Shah, Co-Director of Akshara Centre which is a not-for-profit women’s organisation based in Mumbai, working for the empowerment of women and girls. Nandita is an activist, academic and researcher who has been part of the women’s rights movement for the last 30 years. She has completed both her Bachelors and Masters in Social Work. To understand more about women, their work and neo liberalisation, she obtained her PhD thesis from the University of Amsterdam. She has always been interested in this field and has done some incredible work in it. Keep scrolling to see all that she has achieved and the experiences she has had over the last 3 decades! Q. How did Akshara start out? Can you tell me about the work you do? Akshara emerged from the contemporary women’s movement and the women’s studies movement of the 1980s. Our participation politicised us in gender theory and the struggle for gender equality. We realised that young people, especially in colleges needed to be gender sensitised and involved in social actions which led to establishing Akshara as a centre for feminist literature and studies. Our vision is to empower young women and create a gender-just society. We would like to see all young women be conscious of gender inequality and take steps towards self-sufficiency. We would like young men to understand male privilege and support women’s struggles. We would also like our state authorities to bring in laws and policies which will favour equality. The Safe City Movement helped push our advocacy agenda for prevention of violence on public buses and railway systems as well as with the municipality. We have also played a key role in establishing the ‘Gender Resource Centre with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM)’. Akshara has supported the Police Department in setting up a GPRS based emergency helpline for women (103) in Mumbai and its suburb, Thane. Akshara has been able to institute a long-term partnership of safer travel for women commuters in public buses and the railways. Q. Can you tell me about Akshara’s work with young boys and girls? Why do you think it is important to work with young people? Young people are always in a learning mode and are full of enthusiasm to take action, so, it’s always fun engaging with them. Akshara’s aim is to support the youth to maximize their leadership potential. We believe that the youth are a formidable force that can contribute to bringing about a social change. Young women’s leadership has to be built and young men have to be engaged in this process of building a gender-just world. We have two programs which engage 500 young people every year who in turn reach out to more than 8000 people in the city. I feel that low family incomes, lack of access to education and a good job and the nature of the social structures and stigma lead to the lack of a platform for several young individuals, who may otherwise be open to new and unorthodox views. Young women have to further endure additional layers of exclusion and exploitation on account of gender bias. In an attempt to bridge one type of gap - between access to information and gender awareness – Akshara has been striving to provide the youth with a platform for greater civil society participation, engagement at a policy-level and improvement in their quality of life. Based in low-income pockets and colleges of Mumbai, the ‘Youth for Change’ and ‘Empowering Dreams’ programs work with the marginalised youth in order to enable them to reflect on their own lives, views and prejudices on gender equality and violence against women. In doing so, they question the existing notions of patriarchy, masculinity and power in society. The programs help these young men and women to channelize their agency to become ‘Gender Champions’, as they take up the challenge of working with other students, and involving themselves in socially-relevant tasks and advocacy to build a gender-just society. Q. How was your experience of adding a Gender chapter in the Mumbai Development Plan? Gender was one thing that was always missing in the Development Plans (DP) in India. So, when the Mumbai Development Plan was to be renewed, we joined the citizens network called “Hamara Shehar Vikas Abhiyan” to engage with the planning process. The Gender and DP Group was formed to push the women’s agenda within the plan as gender intersects with all issues including housing, transport, education, work, safety and social justice. Our task was to ensure that there was recognition for the fact that women experience cities differently and the new plan should be formulated with the intention of bridging that gap. Our focus was to include spaces for women which would encourage employment and provide support to working women. The entire process took around 50 months. Eventually, when the revised draft of DP 2034 was released in 2018, it became the first urban plan in India to have an entire chapter devoted to gender and planning. Chapter 22 titled “Gender, Special Groups and Social Equity can be called a landmark. It helped us articulate various services like multipurpose housing for women which includes emergency shelter, care centres for children and senior citizens, centres for skill building and marketing etc. To institutionalize it, we asked for an advisory board of 8 people from different backgrounds, which was approved recently and will oversee the allocation of land and implementation of the plan. This is a fine example of gender mainstreaming. The gender inclusion in DP became a reality due to two factors. The first was that the Gender and DP Group was able to clearly enunciate what it wanted in the plan and how to make gender possible within the framework of the existing plan. The second was the willingness of the Chairperson of the Revision Committee and his team to engage with the issue and understand the viewpoint of the Gender and DP Group. One without the other would have not yielded the same results. Q. What are the challenges you feel that women face in terms of their safety? And what do you think would make women feel safer? Mumbai is considered a safe city compared to others in the country. However, women in the city find sexual harassment in public spaces as one of the biggest problems. We conducted a survey of over 5000 women and found that, in the day time, all crowded places were a problem and after dark all uncrowded spaces were. Women felt safe in busy spaces with pedestrians and hawkers. The authorities responded to the results of our survey by promising to increase policing, install CCTV cameras on the roads and increase surveillance. We find this protectionist notion of safety a challenge to deal with. The other challenge is an internal one for women. Women should be able to exercise their right to take risks, to go out, to travel and to claim their city spaces. Women should not have to stay at home. They should be able to assess their own sense of safety and be mobile. Women need to actively be a part of conversations- be it with their families, at work or with themselves. Safety is only a starting point for the change we need as women and it is not up for negotiation. For women, the night is another big challenge. They will do anything to avoid going out in the night by themselves. Working women tend to avoid the night shift. So, reclaiming the night for themselves and moving around freely in public spaces is always difficult. This conversation needs to be built with girls so that they are also aware of what they can and cannot do. It’s also very important to have these conversations at the city level.
There were so many amazing girls who were a part of the Khadar Ki Ladkiyan hit song and I felt that talking to just one of them wasn’t enough. So, I spoke to Seema recently. She lives in Madanpur Khadar and has been there since 2001 when she and her family were relocated from Nizammudin. She has worked with Jagori and even completed her fellowship there. Now, she is working with Safe Approach NGO where she works as a caretaker at night. I hope Seema inspires you as much as she has inspired me. Keep reading to know more about her, the challenges she has faced and the strong and confident ways in which she overcame them! Can you tell me more about Khadar, your family and community? When my family and I moved to Madanpur Khadar, the place was a complete mess. There were no amenities and it was very dirty. The men in and around the area would be gambling and overall, it was just a very unsafe place. Now if you see the place, it is definitely better but there is still much more that can be done. The move to Khadar was challenging but we all managed. I have one sister and one brother. I am the youngest so I am always given extra love from everyone. Growing up I never felt like my brother was given better treatment than me or my sister, though some of my friends in the community faced these kinds of issues. Having older siblings is like having another set of parents. My brother would tell me not to wear certain dresses out and as a kid, I would listen. However, now, I wear whatever I feel comfortable in and he sees the confidence in me, so he also doesn’t fight it anymore. When I first got my night job as a caretaker, my family was very against it. My mother said that it wouldn’t be safe for a girl to have a night job and she was very worried about how I would get home at that time. I didn’t just want to be stubborn and fight with them so I sat them down and tried to explain it as well as I could and told them that I was very keen on doing this job. I managed to convince them to let me try it out and it has now been a few months and things seem to be going quite well. Tell me about the experience of the Aana Jaana project and making the video? Aana (Coming) and Jaana (Going) is something that happens on a daily basis. We did it for school and now we’re doing it for work. There have been times when some uncomfortable incidents have taken place and we would let it go but through the whatsapp diaries, which was a big part of this project, we were able to share our experiences with each other and that became a safe space for all of us. We could talk about our feelings and that felt good. Before we started shooting, I knew that we would be out on the streets and people would be staring so once we actually started, I was not flustered or distracted by the people around. What was tough for a bit was looking into the camera and saying the words. I think all of us in the video took some time to get used to that but once we got the hang of it, it was great. Nandan bhaiya, who planned the shoot, was such a great help and he’s someone that I can still go to for any help if I need. What changes have you seen in yourself and your community in the last few years? Just a few days back, when I was coming back from work, I saw something which was surprising for me. There were 3 young girls, each 5-years-old, who were sitting together. One of the girls was pressing the other one’s stomach while she was talking about pain. I realised then that these girls were pretending to be pregnant in their game. So, I went and asked their parents about it. Their first reaction was to scold the kids but I told them to stop and think about why the kids even thought of this as an idea for a game. If they have such limited exposure, what else can one expect? I used to feel a little unsafe when I would travel alone at night, but now it’s become a habit. I remember before, when I used to travel to Nizamuddin, the buses would be so crowded that being pushed around and groped was common. This was at the time when I was working with Jagori so I would share this with the office when I would reach. Talking to them and working with them was a big learning experience for me. It helped me understand safety better. I think more than the place, it’s us who have changed. Whenever I would be out on the streets in the evening, people, especially men would pass comments and it would make me uncomfortable. Sometimes the way people look at me is so disgusting. It feels like they are undressing me with their eyes. Now, I stand up to them and question them about it and they either get embarrassed or walk away. Lots of my friends who live elsewhere tell me that it’s great that I stand up for myself but when their stares are so intrusive, I feel like I have no other choice! What was the reaction to the video from your family and community? During the whole course of the Aana Jaana project, I had kept my parents informed about all the events. So, they knew about the whatsapp diaries and the song. They were actually very supportive. They kept telling me that through this project and video, I would be able to show the realities of our community. When the video finally came out, they really liked it. They showed it to all the other families in our neighbourhood as well. It was nice to see them so proud of me. Quite a few of my friends also said they liked it and what we said in the video. I think they were happy that we spoke so freely and openly.
We have done some work in Port Moresby around market areas and public transport and we did this project with UN Women and were so incredibly lucky to meet and work with some amazing people. One of the people we got to know was Lizette Soria Sortello. Lizette is a Peruvian, which has played an important role in the way she understands a city and those insights are clearly seen in this interview and in her work. She is an urban sociologist working with UN Women. Keep reading to know more about the awesome work Lizette has done and about her learnings and experiences along the way. Q. Could you tell me about your experience of living in Peru and how the move to Canada was? I grew up in three Latin American cities where sexual harassment in public spaces was normalized, as in many cities across the globe. Growing up there, I thought it was normal and I was used to changing my route to places to avoid being catcalled, or taking a longer route to find a safer route back home. This perception of mine changed when I moved to Montreal at the age of 18. It was such an eye-opening moment for me when I was able to experience the city in ways that I had never done before. I was able to go around by myself and ride my bike at night without much worry which was quite different from back home. I felt empowered. Noticing this difference got me more interested in the issue of women’s safety and access to a city’s infrastructure. I wanted to understand better the intersection between cities and gender so I started digging deeper to figure out why sexual harassment happens, how cities are designed, and how it affects peoples’ lives, particularly women. I have now been working on this issue for over 10 years. Q. Can you tell me more about the UN Women’s Global Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Programme? UN Women launched the Global Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Flagship Programme Initiative in November 2010 with five founding cities (Cairo, New Delhi, Quito, Kigali and Port Moresby) with the overall goal to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women and girls (SVAWG) in public spaces. At the time, there was limited experience on safe cities programming which limited the scale and scope for us, there were only a few evaluations available and there was lack of reliable and specific data on SVAWG in public spaces. In 2013- 2014 the initiative was scaled up to 15 cities, and today the Global Initiative spans nearly 40 cities in over 22 countries, with increased demand from cities across the world. Through a comprehensive strategy based on evidence, cities commit to reduce sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women in public spaces through the creation of data, partnerships, policies, investments and transformative change in social norms. We work directly with city authorities, grassroots women and youth, men’s groups and organizations, urban planners, research and educational institutions, private sector and other UN agencies to create safer spaces around streets in and around schools, public transportation, public toilets, markets and parks. Delhi was actually one of the founding cities as a part of this programme. It’s been a great learning journey for us and over the years, we have expanded to public spaces in rural and urban settings. Q. Having worked with so many cities, what is something interesting that you have learned? While working on the global initiative, I learned that all cities with strong leadership and commitment can create change. What has always fascinated me is that, once authority leaders, women rights organizations, youth organizations and the communities in general are engaged, they find solutions despite the challenges. It is very inspiring for me to see! For me, personally, it’s always really encouraging to see people, especially young girls and boys discussing and addressing the issue of sexual harassment in public spaces and women’s rights to the city and advocating for change. It is clear that each city must find a solution to the problem in their own reality. Q. What were the highlights and challenges of working in Papua New Guinea? Port Moresby is a unique city. It’s one of the biggest cities in the Pacific and very different from what I was used to. Being a part of this project was like learning from scratch for me. To be able to successfully do this project, I had to let go certain assumptions and improve my listening skills. Human relationships and trust is also very important to create close relationships, especially in societies like theirs and mine that have gone under colonialization. With kindness, the will to listen and similar societal challenges and opportunities, we were able to create a very good foundation for a strong partnership. I met people who were facing so many problems economically and socially, but they were so resilient, especially the youth, and it was such an amazing thing to see and work with. Throughout my profession, I have worked in transport and gender, and as a young woman of colour, it has been challenging to open doors and work in a male dominated sector. The male advocates from Papua New Guinea were unlike any I had met before, they were very keen advocates and were reliable. It was a real privilege to be a part of this project and work with so many incredible women and men. Q. How do you think the issue of women’s safety has evolved over the last decade? I would say there has definitely been a progress in the last 10 years. I remember 10 years ago, when I had just graduated, working on the issue of women’s safety, cities and gender was quite difficult. There were very few opportunities or investment and initiatives for these issue. However, in the last decade I have seen courageous women voicing their needs and more and more UN agencies, NGOs, government agencies, communities and private sector companies responding to these demands and investing in women’s safety initiatives. The progress on sexual harassment and women’s rights has received a lot of backlash lately and that to me means that a change is coming. Any change requires a balance of power and willingness to changing attitudes and this is not a simple process. The rate at which we’re going is not enough but I want to be optimistic. The #MeToo movement showed us the power of a global movement. It showed us that there are millions of women who have faced violence and they are not okay with staying silent anymore. I hope that our generation and the new generations to come will create more opportunities for cities and public spaces free of violence and not just let it pass. There has also been a lot of progress on how we understand our cities, public spaces and its differentiated impact on diverse populations. This has also opened up the opportunity to look at public spaces from the point of gender inclusion. Earlier, cities would not even acknowledge the different needs of their users according to age, sex, or economic access. New approaches, such as human centered design has gained importance and is giving us an opportunity to make places safer and more accessible for women and girls. Q. Which of the SDGs does the UN Women’s Programme address and how? One of the key challenges the global programme aims to address is the lack of reliable data on sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls (SVAWG) in public spaces and the evaluation of women’s safety strategies. Through the implementation of the global programme, cities have an opportunity to contribute to the SDG targets, in particular SDG 5 (target 5.2), and SDG 11 (target 11.7) and to share inspiring practices and lessons learned to create safe cities and safe public spaces for women and girls across the globe.
Kathryn Travers is the Executive Director at Women in Cities International. She has a background in criminology and sociology and did her master’s coursework in Costa Rica in International Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution. Post this, she moved to New York to complete an internship with the UN in the Mediation Support Unit. While she was living in New York, Women in Cities International (WICI) reached out to her to work on a project that would include working with different groups of women who experience particular exclusion, for example, elderly women, urban aboriginal women, etc. “That project set the tone for me, about what kind of work I’d want to do and what my area of interest was”, she said. Q. Can you tell me more about WICI and how your experience working with WICI has been? Let me first tell you about how WICI started. WICI is the outcome of the first International Conference on Women’s Safety which took place in Montreal, in 2002. At that time, the City of Montreal had a program called Femmes et Ville, “Women and the City” that worked on issues of gender inclusion at the city level. By the virtue of organizing this conference and discussing work in urban public spaces, the conference organizers unknowingly created an international network. Once this happened, they decided to formalize it so as to be able to maintain the network they had created and to strive to share knowledge and tools with a wider audience. So, at its origin, WICI was basically a network organization that aimed to make information available to all, for learning, advocacy, local level work, education and awareness purposes. To this day, WICI’s funding is project-based, and we have no core funding, which is an ongoing challenge for the organization. Our first few projects were mainly research based. For example, we got a grant to support a women safety award in 2004, which put a spotlight on good practices around the world. We also facilitated some online dialogues that we wrote up into short reports. Post this, we got into programming and technical assistance more. We were looking at how we were approaching women’s safety and inclusion in the city, and more importantly, how to be intersectional about it. We believe that women around the world have different experiences from one another because of their multiple identity markers so we decided to look at other issues that affect women as well, and not just safety. We evaluated the social and built environments and then started thinking about mobility, transportation and women’s movement around a city, as well and opportunities for women to participate in shaping the city. Our end goal is to make places and cities more sustainable even after we leave and one of the best ways to do this is through partnerships. We wanted to go beyond just bringing the government to the table and give importance to the fact that though the grass-root organizations need the government, the government needs them too, in order to understand the base of the problem. Due to this, we started being more deliberate with our training and made sure that both parties received the training or support they needed to be at equal levels before meeting each other. This way, all communication between the organizations and governments was fruitful right from the start. Q. Can you tell me about your work in Canada on Safe Cities? And your adaptations of the safety audit and its use? The first project I worked on with WICI was a pan-Canadian project where we worked with four different cities with four different groups of women. In Montreal, we worked with differently-abled women. In the other three cities, we worked with elderly women (Gatineau), immigrant women (Peel region near Toronto) and urban aboriginal women (Regina), respectively. They all face different types of safety issues and it was so interesting because we worked with these groups individually first and then got them all together. When they all met, they loved it and found that it was so enriching and important to have peer learnings. More importantly, they expanded their own reflections about the challenges women face in the city to think about the needs of the women they met. So, in all four cities, tools like the women’s safety audit were adapted to include things like universal accessibility or longer street crossing times to make it easier for older women, among other things. After this, peer learning and exchange became a core principle of our work. I think a common mistake we make when talking about people living with disabilities is that we automatically assume a very prominent physical disability, most often requiring the use of a wheelchair, and that is not always the case. I had one really amazing experience with women without sight which I talk about in workshops and conferences till date. Doing an audit is a largely sight-based process where you note down what you see around you but working with these women we learned to expand the audit process to encompass all 5 senses. The women with limited or no visual ability would utilize their sense of smell and they would tell us things before we could see them. For example, once when we were walking, one of the women stopped us and told us to be careful as there might be broken glass around the corner because she could smell beer. It was so incredible to see the power of the human body to adapt to navigate the urban space using only its strongest senses. More recently, we did a project in Guyana, South America, in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) where they were investing in infrastructure as part of the transformation of an informal area in a formal neighbourhood. So, we worked with the community women and did safety audits to prioritize what needed to be done first. For example, to add drainage in front of a primary school where the road flooded when it rained, or to add street lighting to the routes women took to go to the market etc., it was based on making spaces more inclusive, and on prioritizing urban upgrading in a way that not only responded to local priorities but that was also gender responsive. Lately, we are working more to try to find opportunities for influence where a budget is already approved so that we can make a difference faster. One thing we believe in is forming strong partnerships very early on in the project and not doing so only after the site diagnosis. If everyone a part of the project works together from the start, then the entire course of the project goes more smoothly. Q. What do you think has been your biggest challenge and achievement while working with women or girls to build safe cities? One of the biggest challenges is that whenever we work with the local people, we need to address their issues and show some results faster than sometimes possible. They are asked to give their time and participate in surveys and they do it on the promise of change. So, we have council meetings where issues are negotiated between different stakeholders who are ultimately responsible for implementing change and the local people who have expectations to see results quickly and we have to manage it. One thing we do is to identify the quick wins first so that people feel like they’ve been heard. Something like installing street lights in different areas is a time-consuming process and this is always difficult to explain to the local people who want to see immediate change. Another challenge for me, personally, is that we’re funded per project and sometimes it feels that as soon as we gain a good momentum, the funding finishes and this limits the potential impact of our work. This is the reason I believe partnerships can make a huge difference. If we’re not the only ones working on a project, then work can continue even after our time is up. When it comes to achievements, I think the small achievements along the way are always extremely motivating to continue with the project. The example of working with differently-abled women and their abilities to innovate and adapt the audits to still use the tool but to do so relying on their other senses is a story I share at all safety audit events. It has a big multiplier factor, because it inspires and motivates people. I think if we’re sitting somewhere and have the opportunity to make a difference, then it’s our responsibility and privilege to speak for women who can’t do it for themselves or who don’t yet have a seat around the table. Q. How do you think the issue of women’s safety has evolved over the last decade? There have been many waves in the movement for women’s rights and safety. I think the #MeToo movement shed light on the fact that every woman, irrespective of fame, class or religion, has faced harassment in some form or another and the fact that Hollywood actors came out and openly spoke about it gave a lot of women the confidence to share their experiences as well. #MeToo showed us that harassment is a global problem and has created a space for conversations that were previously not considered as proper things to speak about. Another thing is that, in the past we have spoken about domestic abuse policy and how data was always required to make a case. Now, we are talking about harassment and saying that a woman’s experience and story holds importance too. #MeToo is a safe space for discussion but now we need to have a safe space for more than discussion, we need to focus on prevention and for taking action as well. This was a stepping stone in what I hope is a much bigger movement to not only acknowledge women’s experiences of harassment or violence, but of transforming social norms and working to end harassment and violence against all women and girls.
I got the chance to talk to Meera, from Madanpur Khadar, who featured in the rap song “Khadar Ki Ladkiyan”, which is a song that the girls of that community wrote and sung explaining their troubles and asserting their right to the city. This song was produced as a part of the Aana Jaana (coming and going) project. Meera is now working with Jagori and asserting her right to the city every day! Keep scrolling to know more about Meera, the obstacles she has faced and how she overcame them. Q. Tell me about where you live and your experience living there. I moved to Madanpur Khadar in 2000 because we got relocated by the government. When I first moved there, it was a scary place- there were no amenities and no viable transport option (there was a mini bus but it was always crowded and a very unstable mode of transportation so I didn’t use it much), so it restricted a lot of girls, including me. I had to stop my education in 9th grade. I eventually got back to studying many years later, when the infrastructure was improved. It is a much better place to live now but there is still a lot of scope for improvement. Q. How did you become a part of the Aana Jaana project and how was your experience? We have all been working with Jagori since 2009. That time we used to attend meetings and go for some events. It was in Jagori only that we were introduced to the Aana Jaana project that was organized by King’s College, London. We were asked if we wanted to be a part of the project, share our experiences of living in Khadar and traveling around the city, and we all agreed. We had to do safety audits of our colony and identify which areas where safe and which dangerous. We did these audits using Safetipin. The project was one year long and so we had time to do a lot of things. We made a Wikipedia page where we wrote about Khadar and our troubles in the community, which was a great learning experience because we had no idea how to do it before this project. We also made a rap song to show our struggles because we felt that music could connect with everyone. We never expected it to be so appreciated and to be in the news and even to be interviewed! Q. How did your family and community react to the video? Did you feel any change after the video released? I didn’t face too much problem from my family. There was the issue that we had to manage this project alongside work, so we had to meet up late in the evenings and every Sunday. Life had become very busy at that time but it was our wish to take it up so even though it was tough, we were doing it happily. When our song had initially come out, we got a lot of positive feedback and that was really nice. My friends also told me they really liked the song and I think it made them feel that they could also openly say what they felt. I felt very proud to be able to talk about my community on such a public platform. In the beginning in Khadar, it was so unsafe that I myself didn't want to go to the market alone. Now, however, I don't fear going anywhere by myself and that’s a change for my community to see. They still think that girls should always wear a scarf, never go out, not speak too much and definitely not talk to boys. They used to comment before but now they just give looks and I have gotten used to it so it doesn’t bother me. Q. Do you have brothers and sisters? How do you think treatment for your brother is different from yours? I have one sister and 4 brothers. The problem of gender was there in the beginning but now it’s not as much. This is mostly because of Jagori. There has been a change from within me and it has spread to my family and community. My neighbours sometimes still ask about where we are and why we go out so late but they have reduced asking a lot because they are also starting to get used to it. Q. How was the experience of shooting a video? It was a little strange, at first because we had never worked in front of a camera before. Nandan bhaiya, who was our videographer would keep pointing out our mistakes. He would keep asking us to emote more and be expressive. On top of this we had to shoot in public so people would always stare. During the making of the video, there was a little agitation but once the video was made we were all very happy and could only remember all the good times we had while shooting.
We always talk about our work and projects, but now we want you to know a little bit about the incredible people we meet along the way. Laura Somoggi, from the Womanity Foundation, was our mentor during our time as finalists for the Womanity Award for Prevention of Violence Against Women (VAW). It was an extensive process but definitely worth it. Keep reading to know more about Laura, her journey and thoughts! Q. Could you tell me a little about yourself? I am a Brazilian and have been living in London for 13 years now. I was a journalist for 10 years before I moved. I wanted to work with social impact issues, so moving countries was a step to change careers. I did a Master’s at the London School of Economics and then started work with Unilever. I worked there for 8 years and was responsible for managing cross-sector partnerships with global NGOs and UN agencies, focusing on international development work. I also led the women’s empowerment agenda for a year. After this, I moved from the private sector to the non-for-profit, joining the Womanity Foundation in June 2017, to lead on our programmes focused on tackling violence against women. Womanity helps empower women and girls in emerging markets to shape their future and accelerate progress within their communities. We design and implement our own programs to achieve meaningful impact in two areas: Disruptive Media Solutions Institutional Development. I also sit on the board of trustees of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, (LAWRS) an NGO based in London that work on advocacy and also services for Latin American women living in the UK, including support on social benefit issues, migration issues, violence against women, employability, among others. Q. Tell us about the work Womanity does. How do you find and select organizations for the award? What are the social criteria you look at? The Womanity Award was first launched in 2014 with the goal of finding innovative programmes tackling violence against women to be adapted into new geographies as a way of scaling them up. We support a pair of organisations for three years to work together in carefully adapting the programme respecting the local context and social norms. It is a very refreshing approach when compared to some more top-down replication models where programmes are copied and pasted across different countries. We provide funding, capacity building and also leverage both communications and networking opportunities for our partners. We are now in the third edition and in each iteration, we focus on a specific theme related to VAW. In 2014, we focused on Engaging Men and Boys for Violence Against Women. In 2016, the theme was how to tackle Online Violence Against Women. In 2018, the theme was Creating Safe Urban Environments for Women - and this is the year that Safetipin and Soul City were selected for the Award. Our selection process is very thorough and extensive. It takes around a year from the time we start selecting organisations to when we give the Award. We have four rounds of shortlisting and there is an advisory board of experts who help in choosing the finalists. The three pairs of finalists then go through a 3-months funded mentoring process to work on the final proposal, which includes a field visit to the country where the programmes will be adapted. Finally, we also do financial, legal and safe guarding policies due diligence processes. After going through such a comprehensive process, we are always confident about who we are giving the award to. Ultimately, our goal at Womanity is to strengthen the global network of organizations working to tackle violence against women in different countries. We want to catalyze collaborations and create opportunities for co-learning and knowledge sharing. The power of partnerships cannot be underestimated. Q. How do you think the issue of women’s safety has evolved over the last decade? I think there is a lot more awareness about the fact that women don't feel and are not safe both in public and private spaces. This happens in every country, affecting women from different backgrounds, social classes etc. It happens to everyone, everywhere. I’m also glad that there is an increase of awareness about the fact that violence against women is totally related to the power dynamics in our patriarchal society. Movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp made this very visible. These movement also challenged perceptions as well. I remember that years ago in Brazil, catcalling wasn’t even considered harassment by many women – and this is changing. Also, with more women speaking up about their experiences, it encourages others to do the same. We also have to focus on how the extent of safety perception affects a women development opportunities. If we feel afraid of walking in certain streets, taking public transport at certain times this may limit our choices of places to work or schools to study. So besides being a moral issue, fighting violence against women impact the economy as well. Q. What is a safe public space according to you? Well, I think in a very general sense, it's a place where we feel free. A place where there are no limitations, where I can walk without worry and not have to constantly check over my shoulder. Also, as I learned from Safetipin already, there are several dimensions that influence how women feel in the public space: lighting at night, the presence of other people in the street (especially women), and how open are the spaces and if you can see other people and can be seen. On that respect, I saw something really similar in my hometown São Paulo (Brazil) and Johannesburg (South Africa). In rich neighborhoods the houses have very tall walls and fences, so when you walk in the street, you feel very isolated and vulnerable – if something happens to you, nobody can see you and you can’t see anyone. What makes private spaces feel safer can have the opposite effect in the public space. Q. Do you feel there’s a difference in the public spaces in all the cities you’ve lived? I have lived most of my life in São Paulo, Brazil, which is a big city and not safe. When I moved to London, which is also a big city, I felt much safer. I can walk alone at night which is something I couldn't do in Sao Paulo except maybe in some specific areas. I know that there is harassment and violence in London as well, but the probability of something happening in London is much smaller than in São Paulo. As a woman, I’m never completely relaxed when outside, I need to be aware of all movements around me, especially at night. Q. What do you think can be done to improve women’s rights and safety in the future? I believe that we need to have more women working on urban planning, so women’s needs are considered when thinking about the use of the urban space. Women and men use the city in very different ways. I’m reading a brilliant book called Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez, and she gives numerous examples showing these differences. She gives evidence, for instance, that transport as a profession is a ‘highly male-dominated” and they have bias from their personal experience when planning. Also, very few governments disaggregate data by sex so all the information about how people move in the city is seen as one when the reality is very different. Women do 75% of the worlds unpaid care work and this affect their travel needs: they drop children off at school before going to work, they do groceries on the way home, while men, in general, just go to work and come back. We need more women making decisions and creating space for more women to make decisions. But it’s important to say that it’s not enough to just have them at positions of power but also having women who are willing to do things differently. It’s not just a numbers change, what we need is a system change! We do not need more women thinking like men, we need more women and men to be able to think outside the norm. Through the years, we have seen the world through male lens and always considered anything different as an exception. Challenging the status quo is very difficult, but I think that exception needs to be made a mainstream way of thinking.
Diya Nag is a Senior Program Officer with The Asia Foundation’s country office in New Delhi. She is a development professional and lawyer. She has studied Human Rights and Sociology, has a Juris Doctor with a specialization in Global Law and Practice and is a member of the New York bar, First Appellate Division. She has accomplished so much with her work and I’m thrilled that we got the opportunity to speak with her. Keep reading to know more about her views on gender stereotypes and the progress for women in the last year! Q. What does #BalanceForBetter mean to you? For me, #BalanceforBetter means there needs to be more equality, not just between the various genders, but between the mainstream and the marginalized. #BalanceforBetter means everyone gets an equal chance to work, live, play, learn, thrive, and enjoy life. Q. Do you see a gender disparity within your work circle or friends' groups? If yes, how do you tackle it? If no, what is your view on it? I am 36, which means many of my friends are new parents. If one spouse has to take a backseat from their career and focus more on childcare, it is usually the mother. I’ve tried to change this by calling attention to this gendered decision, privately. Sometimes it works, sometimes people just shrug and move on. Q. How do you think women participation in public spaces has improved in the last few years? It has increased, but that is inevitable. The women’s movement has never regressed, only progressed. We need to make sure more women are participating in the workforce, though. Women’s unpaid work is still unaccounted for. Q. What progress have you seen for women in the last year? The #MeToo movement brought attention to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace like never before. Women have been experiencing this for decades but in 2018 we all stood up together, and said enough is enough! Q. If you could give out a message to all the young women out there just entering the work field, what would it be? Stand up for yourself as a woman in these three ways: 1) Argue for raises and promotions when you feel you deserve them; 2) Demand flexibility from your employer to accommodate for child and elder care responsibilities and/or pregnancy; and 3) Fearlessly call out sexism / gender bias when you see or experience it