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
Maliha Abidi is a 23-year-old artist and writer. She is from Karachi, currently studying Neuroscience at the University of Sussex while also continuing her passion for art and spirit for women empowerment through various projects, one of them being her upcoming book “Pakistan for Women”. Q2. What does #BalanceForBetter mean to you? I think as a woman, I have a ton of responsibilities- I am a daughter, a wife and an artist. It’s really important for me to have good relationships with both my father and husband as I value them the most but my priority is my mental space. I want to support my family and have them do the same but I can’t do that if I’m not thinking clearly. It’s important to have a healthy mind, healthy lifestyle and healthy communication to handle everything right. Q3. 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 myself, have not seen it a lot, but that does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is very prevalent in my country, I know that. I’ve been fortunate in life and I come from a privileged household but that doesn’t mean that I deny or don’t believe the stories of others. I think that’s a fundamental problem with the movements like #MeToo that have come up in the last year- just because people don’t see it, they think it’s a lie. I think we need to create a community and society where people feel comfortable and safe enough to share their lives. Q4. Do you use public transport frequently? How do you think women participation in public spaces has improved in the last few years? I have lived in San Francisco, UK and Pakistan and have used some public transport in all these places. In UK, especially to travel for university, I face problems with delayed trains but no harassment as such. In Pakistan, I have taken rickshaws for short distances and personally, have not faced any problem. It might have to do with the fact that I don’t travel alone much, I always have my cousins or friends with me. There are a few stares here and there but luckily I have never faced any aggression or problems. I think this also stems from my statement previously about how I do come from a privileged household. Q5. As a person in your line of work, do you feel that there are stereotypes and types of things that you're expected to do? How do you feel about the same? How do you overcome it? I definitely feel that there are stereotypes and expectations and they’re different for me as an artist and me as a woman. As an artist, I feel a lot of people think that it’s easy and a quick process to create art which is not true. It takes time and effort especially because I do all my work with hand and don’t use any software. I don’t do much commercial work, instead I work on projects and platforms. I have worked with UN Women, which was a great opportunity. As a woman, I feel like the fact that I got married young draws a lot of negative attention to me. My marriage was my choice and I’m happy but a lot of people pity me for it and question me for it which I don’t appreciate. I also feel like my hijab adds to it. People automatically think that I’m oppressed because I’m from Pakistan. I think I derived some inspiration for my book from here. I want to show that not all South Asian women have the same problems and struggles. I’ve written about women who are trying to come up with solutions to their individual problems and in turn are helping many others. Q6. Anything else you would like to add about the last year and the progress for women? Have you seen more women on the forefront or has it remained the same? The last year for me has been a lot about my book. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with many of the women featured in the book, one of the big names being Malala. I think it’s important to understand that no matter what platform you have, be it Facebook or Instagram, try to be the voice for those who don’t have one. I’m proud to say that my book is the first of its kind in Pakistan because there are so many inspiring women who don’t always get the apt recognition for their work. I’m happy to say that I have played a small part in doing that!
Pranita is a 26-year-old independent artist based out of Mumbai. She is an illustrator and type designer. She’s done some amazing work, my personal favorite being the #ShutUpAndStopStereotyping calendar which I keep on my desk. Check out her work/products at https://pranita-kocharekar.com/. We asked her a bunch of questions and here are her responses for you to see! Q. What does #BalanceForBetter mean to you? Balance is always tricky, for anything to balance - there needs to be a sense of equality. Be it balancing your work & social life, or balancing gender norms. #BalanceForBetter to me would be practicing the idea of equality in every aspect of 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? Fortunately, I haven't particularly come across gender disparity. Although, I am very aware of the amount of disparity in society, especially in work spaces & salary structures. Although, we're living in a time where feminists are rising, equality is being taught amongst children & hopefully, there should be a fairer work environment for the coming generations. Q. Do you use public transport frequently? How do you think women participation in public spaces has improved in the last few years? There is an entire local Mumbai train dedicated only towards women travellers around the peak evening hours. This definitely shows encouragement towards working women. A decade ago, it was unsafe for a woman to climb into the men's compartment. That isn't the case today, times are definitely changing! Q. As an artist, do you feel that there are stereotypes and lines of artwork that you're expected to do? How do you feel about the same? How do you overcome it? YES! I have worked with a few clients who ask for the illustration to be "lesser plump" "fairer skin" "remove the curls, make her hair straight" - I have always tried to reason with these clients. My response to such changes is always along the lines of - "If you're brand is more inclusive; it will reach out to a larger audience" - This almost always helps. At first, such situations would often make me a bit angry. Although now I realise that a little bit of educating these people is all it takes to change their mind-set. A lot of people are conditioned to be a certain way & don't realise it when they're stereotyping. I have an entire calendar dedicated to gender stereotyping! Q. Anything else you would like to add about the last year and the progress for women? Have you seen more women on the forefront or has it remained the same? There has been a rise in feminists (both male & female) globally. There have been movements (like #MeToo) that are helping give a voice to men & women. Locally, there are artists (illustrators, musicians, poets, etc.) who have been communicating via their art about feminism and equality. I believe when the youth starts talking about gender equality, their voices will be heard sooner or later. Education & knowledge is the key to progress. There has been a massive change in how women are perceived in the last few years, and I feel truly lucky to be alive in a time of change!
Kuala Lumpur is a Malay phrase for “muddy confluence” which is hardly a glowing description. Actually, there was little to be excited about in the early years at the meeting of two murky rivers when a handful of mining community settled there. Yet, despite its unpromising origin, Kuala Lumpur has grown up full of confidence and has asserted its presence at the global stage hosting the Malaysian Grand Prix, Commonwealth Games and recently the World Urban Forum (7-13 Feb), a premier international UN-Habitat conference on pressing urban issues of today, namely, rapid urbanization and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies. At the heart of KL’s central business district and within the precinct of the Petronas Towers, KL’s instant icon (two slender tapering steeples linked by a delicate skyway half way up), lay the arena for the Ninth Session of the World Urban Forum with a theme “Cities 2030, Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda”. It was the first major conference following the 2016 adoption of the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador. The Forum’s focus was on the New Urban Agenda as a tool and accelerator for achieving Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. 22000 participants from 165 countries, among them more than 100 Ministers and Deputy Ministers, debated concrete implementation steps and how to work together building the Cities 2030, Cities for All. The NUA aligns with SDG 11 on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Gender Equality (SDG 5) is among its various other aims. Safetipin’s participation as an organisation which works towards making cities safe and inclusive was primarily to engage in this global open discussion, to raise awareness, share lessons learnt, exchange ideas, develop best practices and to contribute to the collective knowledge of sustainable urban development. Safetipin was invited to various events to share its experience and lessons. During the forum, it was very reassuring to learn about Safetipin’s presence at the global scene as an innovative technological solution to address urban safety. Safetipin an effective tool to gather geo tagged data impacting safety, popped up in many discussions. And in many, it was seen as a powerful driver of change. At an ITDP networking event - What does Transit Oriented Development mean to you? - Safetipin stressed on the difference in the mobility patterns of women and men and why such patterns must be addressed in TOD from a gender equality perspective. At another side event on Sustainable Transport by Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) at the German Pavilion placed inside the fantastic WUF 9 exhibition space, found Safetipin’s solution to be unique to address urban mobility and safety among other strategies adopted to make cities inclusive. The event Using Apps to Address Gender Based Violence saw the presentation of three apps that address violence and was followed by a productive discussion on how to ensure that apps can be more widely used and useful for women in situations of distress. The benefits as well as limitations of technology were discussed. Huaiwei in partnership with UN Habitat organized a session on Measurement of Safe City Approaches which had presentations form many countries including South Korea and Safetipin from India. The aim of the session was to assess different ways of measuring indicators of how to make cities safer using technology, big data and other kinds of data that will enable deeper understanding. At yet another side event on Asia’s Solution to Asia’s Urban Challenges: Delivering the New Urban Agenda through South-South Cooperation by The Asia Foundation – looked at various challenges and strategies undertaken by various approaches in the global south to address its own urban issues. Safetipin was seen as such a solution which was developed in the south and is being used extensively in the south. Safetipin’s own side event – Using data and technology to build inclusive public spaces in cities – presented experiences of collaboratively collecting data by partnering with Safetipin in order to build inclusive public spaces. Stories from low income settlements to cooperation from enthusiastic youths were shared while collecting data in India and other countries. Safetipin’s co-founder Dr. Kalpana Viswanath represented Safetipin at the above sessions along with Rwitee Mandal, an urban designer working with Safetipin. Kalpana also moderated a high profile UN-Habitat event – Urban Planning and Design for Local Implementation which focused and debated on policy recommendations in the implementation of the NUA. Kuala Lumpur successfully hosted the weeklong WUF 9 and would be remembered by all the participants world over to have attended a brilliantly organized and managed event at the state of the art Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in sunny and drizzly KL. Kuala Lumpur Declaration was announced at the closing ceremony which said – “Led by a strong spirit of collaboration, creativity and innovation, we share our aspirations for the future of Cities 2030 as the Cities for all where no-one and no place is left behind.”