By Ajita Kadirgamar
Cities are home to all citizens — men, women, children, the elderly and the differently- abled. This past week I attended a presentation and panel discussion on ‘Women-Friendly Cities Challenge’ hosted by the National Chamber of Commerce and World University Service Canada (WUSC) with support from the newly- formed non-profit Stand By Me LK. Originally launched in 2006, the Women Friendly Cities United Nations Joint Programme shares wise practices from all over the world to help make cities more women-friendly.
The term ‘women-friendly cities’ was not properly defined at the outset, in my opinion, which led me to raise my hand.So, by definition “Women-friendly cities are those cities where all the residents of that particular city can equally benefit from the financial, social and political opportunities presented before them.”
Then, women-friendly cities need to ensure access to health, education, social services, employment opportunities and high quality and comprehensive urban services such as transportation, accommodation and security.
In my opinion, it is a terrible indictment on the state of society and the glaring gender gap in particular, that we should need to specifically define and strive for women friendly cities. While most panelists and audience members chose to look at socio-economic aspects of Sri Lankan cities – participation of females in the work force – the tech/construction sector, tourism/hospitality industry – I felt it was too broad a discussion.
I believe we should focus on more concrete, tangible examples of what makes a city women-friendly. These include decent street lighting (for the safety of women) because yes, women do need to be out at night sometimes; properly maintained public toilets spaced out around the city; safe, efficient, harassment-free bus and train transport; women’s desks at police stations which are actually empowered to respond effectively and sensitively to complaints of rape and abuse.
Our cities have grown exponentially in the past decades, with suburbs stretching further outwards like octopus tentacles. All citizens face long, tiresome commutes, but women in particular have to bear the added unpleasantness of harassment in public transport.
According to the UNFPA (World Bank, 2017), 94% of Sri Lankan women have experienced sexual harassment in public transport. It is inconceivable that in this day and age the groping, crotch thrusting, manspreading, indecent exposure et al continues unabated. What is even more outrageous is that the women who stand up for themselves or speak out when being harassed in public get no sympathy or assistance and are often further abused verbally as though they are in the wrong.
In the early ‘80s, I had a friend who lived in Pannipitiya, a long bus ride from Colombo. A feisty little thing, she would travel armed with a safety pin to jab any male that made unwelcome moves on her. Over 30 years later, I hear of women still resorting to this primitive defence (it should be pepper spray or a taser gun!) and it seems so retrogressive.
With the advent of Uber, PickMe and other ‘taxi’ services one would imagine women have safer options of travelling alone. But already we’ve heard of abusive drivers, harassing and stalking female passengers and no punitive action being taken by their employers.
Violence Against Women (VAW)
If an abused woman cannot make a complaint at a police station in any major city and be treated with respect and dignity,then we have failed miserably as a society, despite the existence of legal and judicial procedures to protect women. The inefficiency and in some cases closing down of women’s desks at police stations is a dire step backwards.
With a force of over 8,000 female police officers, it is unfathomable as to why they are not trained to record complaints and empowered to deal with VAW incidents but are instead are mostly relegated to paper pushing desk duties or school time pedestrian crossing duty.
Police statistics indicate that in 2016 a total of 14,751 grave and petty crimes against women and children were reported of which a mere 8,270 were solved. The Sri Lanka Police Report for 2016 claimed that special attention is paid to ‘taking measures to prevent crimes against women and children by setting up women and child units at every police station.’ According to women’s rights activists however, the women and children desks at police stations are mostly defunct.
Women for Women
Women constitute 50.7%(49.3%male) of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population, yet, issues pertaining to women and children continue to be suppressed and ignored. Women’s groups and activists believe that current male politicians and future aspirants fear the political empowerment of women in whose hands lies half the voting power of the nation. Perhaps, males consider women a threat because they might actually do a good job serving the people as mandated, rather than approaching politics as a well-paid ‘job’, with limitless perks.
One of the few recent instances where the women of Colombo rallied to express anger and demand action was the case of the billboard on Parliament Road, Kotte, depicting a barrel with the words “A barrel is no shape for a woman”. A little bit of mainstream and social media pressure which came to the attention of Minister Harsha de Silva resulted in the billboard being taken down. A rare example of rapid, collective pressure and action!
Consecutive governments with their handful of ineffective, token female ministers have proved incompetent at tackling women’s issues. In fact, there are first hand stories of male politicians being dismissive of and suppressing women’s issues in the most chauvinistic manner.
Thus, the only way forward appears to lie in the hands of female citizens themselves. And the rumblings are certainly there as old, established women’s groups and activists as well as new citizen groups such as ‘Stand By Me’ begin to rise and strategise.
Even if you don’t care about your own safety, surely you care that your daughters enjoy the right to live, travel and work in a safe environment?