Protecting Women’s Safety in Slums

March 21st, 201212:00 pm @


Everyday life in urban slums is difficult for women. Shacks are inadequately equipped for daily needs, forcing women and girls to make early morning and late night treks to collect water or use the public toilet. These seemingly innocuous events become sources of great risk and anxiety for urban poor women who fear for their safety both inside and outside of the home. Violence against women has become pervasive in slums: for example, a 2010 Amnesty International report revealed that in the slums of Nairobi—where recent violence has been highly publicized—perpetrators range from spouses to family members to youth gangs to even government security personnel. There, more than half of women have experienced abuse and violence. In South Asia, the statistics on women’s physical insecurity are similar, though few reports, policies or interventions reveal what is likely one of the major obstacles to moving forward a poverty-reduction agenda.

In order to increase women and children’s access to better healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities, their security and safety must be prioritized. Despite rhetoric of equality and empowerment, a Hindustan Times article from September 2011 shows that “women in Mumbai are feeling increasingly unsafe and instances of violence against them are on the rise.” Incidences of rape, kidnapping and molestation were all up from the previous year. Women’s safety and security in urban South Asia is essential to the development of this region.

The current poverty discourse, however, ignores this underlying need. Of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), MDG 3 states that to promote gender equity and empower women and girls, regional efforts should focus on providing better access to education, improving employment opportunities and increasing political power. Though the UN calls for greater action to improve the status of women, protecting women from violence is not explicitly addressed. Regional public policy and interventions are driven by the broad-ranging UN goals, which clearly fail to include violence prevention as an essential priority in poverty reduction.

Invisible Truths

Poor women live disenfranchised from the formal system—legally, economically and socially—leaving them open to constant threat and harassment. A 2011 study on slum upgrading and safety in Bangladesh reveals that crimes against women are less visible “but more deeply entrenched and possibly more all-pervading” than other serious threats to slum-dwellers. Bangladesh is a highly patriarchal society where violence is often linked to cultural practices rooted in dowry demands, child marriage and the illegality of divorce. “Women in slums are generally burdened with more poverty than men,” says the report, “… and more vulnerable to domestic and familial violence.” A separate study found that the prevalence of spousal abuse is higher in Bangladeshi slums (35%) than non-slums (20%). Given the unwillingness of women to admit abuse for fear of retribution, the numbers are likely much higher. With little independence outside the home, women are isolated and left without formal or even informal recourse for the abuses committed against them.

In this situation, a woman’s decision-making power and voice is restricted. “For instance, about 48 percent of Bangladeshi women say that their husbands alone make decisions about their health, while 35 percent say that their husbands alone make decisions regarding visits to family and friends,” says a UNICEF study on the status of women and girls in Bangladesh. When it comes to violence, these statistics show why a majority of domestic violence cases may go unreported and even become socially accepted. The study further shows that Bangladesh has some of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, where men are often much older than the girls, thereby setting up relationships where young women have little say. In essence, these young girls are married off and “may be reduced to the status of bonded laborer.” Girls in these situations often drop out of school, and their lifelong earning power becomes dramatically reduced.

Gendered Space

While domestic abuse accounts for the majority of cases, women also experience harassment, rape and violence outside of the home. Though women in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan primarily stay in the home, few daily necessities will force them into the male-dominated public space. In fact, the daily task of relieving one’s self—which happens outside the home in slum areas without proper sanitation—puts women at constant risk. It is one of the few moments in their day where they venture outside alone. Evidence from Nairobi’s informal settlements shows that women “become prisoners in their own homes at night and sometimes well before it is dark….The situation is compounded by the lack of police presence in the slums. The ever-present threat of violence has left the women too scared to leave their houses to use communal toilets and bathrooms.”

In India, the situation for women is similarly dangerous, and a new book, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets, reveals that the country’s cities are designed exclusive of women. City planners and administrators ignore the need for safe, public spaces for women: “Public spaces and infrastructure are usually designed for an abstract ‘generic’ user. In the context of an ideology that deems women’s proper place to be at home, this imagined ‘neutral user’ of public facilities and infrastructure is invariably male” (67-68),” says the book, whose three authors include an architect, social scientist and journalist. This male-engendered space can be seen with the lack of appropriate street lighting, for example, which has been noted to increase the vulnerability of women in cities after dark. Another case is the subways in Mumbai—promising infrastructure that allows pedestrians to cross the city’s chaotic streets with ease underground. However, in a study last year conducted by the Hindustan Times and Akshara, a local women’s organization, 37% of the 4,225 women interviewed had faced harassment in the city’s 20 subways, and nearly 76% of them perceived the underground walkways to be unsafe.

“Dimly lit, poorly maintained and almost always unmanned, subways are often home to several anti-social elements and illegal activities,” said the article. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which builds and maintains the subways, has decided to move forward with elevated walkways above ground for future construction. This type of planning shows that women’s safety is being taken into account, and sets an example of how cities should move forward with more awareness in their development.

Similar to the anxiety over using public toilets or subways, women are just as insecure when using public transport. A step forward in Mumbai, at least, has been women’s-only compartments on local trains. Busses in Mumbai, however, do not have the option of gender-separated seating. A December 2011 article in the Hindustan Times cites a World Bank-sponsored study from the previous year that found women felt unsafe while boarding and exiting busses in the city. The report was a gender assessment of Mumbai’s public transport systems. With bus conductors insensitive to women’s complaints about harassment on overcrowded busses, women avoided using the bus. Lack of “female-friendly” toilets near bus stands was cited as another reason for non-usage of busses. Bangalore has responded to these types of incidences by creating women’s-only space on busses as well. Currently, the response in Mumbai has been a launching a helpline for commuters. The general manager of Mumbai city bus company—Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST)—boasted that since the helpline’s inception, not a single complaint has been received from women about harassment. His statistics, however, may reveal less about the newfound safety of public transport than about women’s fear of authority in the city.

An Intervention for Women in Karachi

Women’s inability to move about a city free of harassment diminishes their chances of economic freedom. In Karachi, violence against women is extremely high, even with conflicting figures: one study says that 49.4% of women have experienced domestic violence, while another study from public hospitals in Rawalpindi and Islamabad found that 96.8% of women were victims of domestic abuse. In response, researchers in Karachi undertook an economic skill-building intervention to “increase women’s economic independence, promote women’s safety, and improve the behavioral functioning of their children.”

Reports indicate that there are economic causes to spousal violence against women, including women’s financial dependence on men, as well as restrictions on women’s access to education and employment. “Combined reports from United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), and World Bank (WB) indicate that among the 1.3 billion people worldwide who live in poverty, 70% are women. Women earn only 10% of the world’s total income and contribute two-thirds of the world’s working hours (Care, 2005),” reports the study from Karachi. In building women’s earning potential to gain greater independence and decision-making power, the intervention in Karachi is a first of its kind. It differs from the more common approaches to combating violence, which are focused on “promoting safety-seeking behaviors, counseling programs, and safe shelter residency programs for abused women.”

The goal of the ongoing research in Karachi is to uncover if the economic skill building in women correlates to a decrease in violence committed towards them. The skills identified as essential for successful employment include: effective communication, time management, parenting and personal grooming skills, as well as strategies for dealing with harassment and abuse (in the home and at the worksite). This report is a first step and documents the initial stage of building the economic skill building modules, which will then be tested in a randomized controlled test (RCT). The findings of the RCT will be published upon the study’s completion. The results will also implicate a direct link between poverty-reduction goals and the need for greater safety and security for women.


The promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment around the world cannot be successful unless physical spaces – public and private – are free of violence and harassment. The MDGs are predicated on a safe environment, without which girls would not be able to attend school and women would not be able to access new income-generating or political opportunities. But as the studies of women around India, Pakistan and Bangladesh show, a safe environment cannot be assumed, and violence prevention needs to be more closely linked to poverty reduction. The strategies to eliminate violence against women and girls, which is highly intertwined with the region’s religious and societal customs, will require solutions that include education for men, inclusive urban planning, public official training and avenues for women to report their grievances without fear.

Providing women safe opportunities to engage in public space is an essential first step, since without access to public transport or the ability to walk safely down roads, women have no means for advancement. The urban environment is meant to be the heart of progress and social liberalization in countries where women’s roles are continually developing. South Asia’s urban areas need to bring women’s safety issues to the fore of urban development, and only then can women’s empowerment follow successfully.