When we talk about sexual harassment we usually associate it with the person or place. What we forget is sexual harassment can also be correlated with the lack of a place, like public toilets. It is a basic amenity that should be around in every vicinity. Every person should be able to freely have access to sanitation in public places. In Lal Kuan, a neighbourhood in Delhi, we saw how the non-functionality of toilets and the lack of awareness of even their existence was putting women and children at risk of sexual violence.
In the first quarter of 2015, the community came together with the help of an intervention facilitated by Safecity to bring a sustainable change in their neighbourhood through collective action. The community was mobilised to unite for a common cause – to ensure accessibility to public toilets in order to make their city safer, taking it upon themselves instead of waiting for government action. It’s amazing what people can achieve when they work together. In a joint collaboration with Plan India’s Gender Resource Center (GRC), Safecity and DNA India, this campaign aimed at bringing attention to how imperative it is, to look at development and access to utilities from a holistic perspective of ensuring safety for women and children especially. It is usually seen how a lack of resources, faulty infrastructure and poor planning leaves their safety and mobility unaccounted for. Let’s rewind and see how they brought about this transformation.
Most households in Lal Kuan do not have indoor toilets and/or the resources required to construct them. They couldn’t use public toilets either since they weren’t even aware that toilets had been built for them and under the guise of ‘construction/maintenance work’ were under lock-and-key for two whole years. Therefore, deprived of options, they had to go out in the open to answer nature’s call. Their condition seems very scary, doesn’t it?
Well, this whole situation was invisible to the outside world. The community came together in an effort to understand the experiences of people living in this neighbourhood and understand their access to public spaces. The major objective of this campaign was to increase awareness on sexual harassment and map places where people were experiencing it. This data then aimed at engaging not just with the community but also with institutions to look for solutions that made the public spaces safer and accessible. ”It’s difficult to get people to speak about something so personal, it’s hurtful and brings back memories they probably did not want to face again,” said Salini Sharma, Safecity’s Acting Manager for on-ground campaigns and partnerships in Delhi.
They spent a few weeks talking to the people, building a relationship of mutual understanding and trust and assuring them that they were there for a purpose and a reason – to collectively address sexual violence and participate in making their neighbourhood safer. “It takes time to talk or build relationships or even do anything, it’s a journey that we share together and it’s emotional. But when people start sharing their stories, they hear each other and realise they aren’t alone. It makes them angry, upset and stirs in them the desire to do something about it,” Salini continues. She explained to the residents what was being done by the organisation to counter violence in public spaces and gradually got them to open up and report violence.
As the women and girls narrated incidents in which they were harassed or abused, a pattern began to form and hotspots were recognised like the neighbouring forest areas, near the railways and slums, poorly lit areas; all places where the women usually went to ease themselves early in the mornings, afternoons or late in the evening. They were forced to ease themselves in open areas leaving them vulnerable to forms of sexual harassment and even rape. The women reported errant behaviour like men clicking pictures whilst they were easing themselves, groping in isolated spots, stalking, commenting and even being pulled into bushes and being sexually assaulted. The main hotspots that were identified were an arterial main road which connects two densely populated blocks of Lal Kuan (E and G) where the presence of a tea stall gave boys and men the excuse to loiter around for extended hours. The other was near the Prehladpur Petrol Pump where truck loaders were stationed for most parts of the day, most of them under the influence of alcohol. Scared and uncomfortable due to these unseemly elements, women were forced to choose more isolated or alternative longer routes.
Shocked that there were no toilets at all, during a community walk in the area, two community toilets were identified, and these were locked! On enquiring, we were told that, though the GRC had been advocating for better sanitation facilities, the progress had been frustrating and slow. To top it all, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) had been unapproachable in addressing the issue. So the toilets were just locked and forgotten!
During the three month campaign, meetings were structured with the GRC, local police, the MCD, Naz Foundation, community collectives and media representatives like DNA India in order to garner support from them to eliminate sexual violence through a human rights-based approach. These meetings had the positive outcome of an increase in patrolling and surveillance especially in the hotspots, but that alone couldn’t be the solution as it had its own challenges and fears among women, they feared harassment by the police too. On identifying the toilets, Safecity along with the GRC and four journalists from DNA India came together, to create a campaign to reopen at least one of the toilets. When the MCD, district officer and MLA were asked why the toilets were closed, they remained unresponsive.
Making the most of the International Anti-Street Harassment week, we went around the area interviewing the residents, taking pictures of the locked toilets and collecting reports and data. When we brought this evidence to the notice of the above mentioned authorities, they were finally jolted into action. Sadly, pressure tactics encourage people to action instead of the feeling of duty and responsibility. Sahiram Pehelwan, AAP’s MLA said, “Lal Kuan has three public toilets of which one is dilapidated. The residents are mainly labourers who are unable to pay a toilet fee everyday which goes into its maintenance and upkeep. Today I will speak to CM Arvind Kejriwal and request him to make it free to the public.” After incessant lobbying, we got them to open up the toilet within a month instead of six months later!
The change in the situation there has been momentous. Women are more relaxed and feel safer using the toilets. Testimonials from the community members highlighted the extent of the impact, asserting that it will reduce incidents of sexual violence in public spaces that were being frequented by women to defecate. We mobilised men, in their attitude and concern for safety along with the women in their area to take things in their own hands. The change needs to come from within, sexual violence affects us all in different ways, but it still affects us all. They encouraged community participation at all levels and pushed the people to ensure that the toilet remains open and is maintained. The communities were guided in ways to engage with the MCD when needed, with contact numbers and knowledge of where the office was located, thereby advocating “Self-help is the best help”.
In a few weeks, there was a noticeable change in the outlook of the people. The residents learned not to take abuse meekly, not to accept sub-par conditions and to actively work towards making their area a better, cleaner and safer place. Salini says with a hint of pride, “Post-assessment, the results have been visible, measurable and tangible. People are using the toilets, there is more surveillance in the region, women feel safer and are accessing public places more confidently and are also engaging with the community in driving a shift in mindset in an otherwise patriarchal society that accepts gender-based violence.”