When I was the Rawalpindi City Assistant Commissioner, I and the community looked for low-cost, self-sustaining innovative solutions to address the concerns women brought to me. Fortunately, we were able to convert playgrounds for existing government-owned schools into women-only parks after school hours. Some may consider this solution as regressive due to segregation of genders but in environments where gender discrimination is high sometimes segregated safe spaces are immediate – although not only – answer to combat harassment.
I saw first-hand how providing safe spaces for women does not have to be costly, it just has to be strategic. Even a single street light can reduce violence against women in public spaces. Segregated carriages in trains, buses may be another way for dealing with the safe space problem in the short term. Technology has been used to create safe spaces in countries where women find it difficult to report abuse. Initiatives like Safecity in India use crowd-sourced data for designing specific community interventions to combat harassment.
Issues and Challenges in Implementation of the Initiative
There were no funds in the government for any such spaces. We had to think out of the box. In addition, government officials were not very open towards collaborating with the local community. Some of these public servants feel that it threatens their sphere of influence, especially as Pakistan is a country where government practices are usually opaque. In other words, I had my work cut out for me.
My first step was to assess the need. So me and my core team of five people came up with a plan to hold meetings with local women in the community to understand their needs. I am always a believer in the fact that the community knows what is in their best interest, and that government, at times, simply needs to support them. After meeting with many local women they suggested that we could perhaps use the public school grounds as women-only parks in the evening.
However, as always, there was a copious amount of red tape involved in getting permission to use the grounds. Convincing policymakers to even listen to the idea was not easy. But governments love ideas where no money is needed. So we framed it with a catchphrase of “cost free women only parks”, and pitched it as an idea that would increase the government’s standing amongst the public. The road to success became easy.
We, the local administration, were able to get permission from the policymakers to use the school grounds. But we needed to convince more than just policymakers — schools were also apprehensive; they put a lot of effort into maintaining grounds and did not want them littered. To engage with this concern, local administration, women from the local community, and school authorities met a few times and drew up a code of conduct with mutual consent. This put the responsibility of the cleanliness on the women using the grounds. It was also decided that a volunteer force from the community of women would be responsible for implementing the code of conduct.
Government collaboration with communities can be frustrating at times since it is not easy to get all stakeholders on the same page. The government had to adapt to the local community and take women who never had a voice in the decision-making process into account and start to see them as active participants in an innovation process. The local community also had to adjust their attitudes to a government they were usually suspicious of. It took some time but collaboration started to take form.
Another problem came from the influential men of the area, many voiced their discomfort and anger on giving women spaces to step out of the house. There is a general belief in the local culture that a chaste woman’s place is in the house, and she must not step out of it without a pressing need.
Overcoming the Challenges
It was a hard obstacle to overcome. But we found support from the older women in the community. Interestingly, culturally, older women such as grandmothers and mothers can hold sway over men in the family. These elder women made it clear that they and the younger women and children needed safe spaces to relax and entertain themselves to manage their homes properly. Once that message came across much of the resistance died down.
It took local administration more than a year to wade through the different steps and finally launch the initiative of women-only parks. It was cost-free, community-run, and sustainable. Not only did it sustain itself, but soon enough we were able to create more women-safe spaces around the city.
This exercise was a lesson in participative leadership where we made decisions for and by the community as facilitators. A key takeaway has been that keeping the community involved in decision-making and apprising of the true situation on the ground builds trust between the community and policymakers. Participation gives ownership to all stakeholders and keeps the initiative sustainable. It also made me aware of the need for gender-focused policymaking and I have been able to use my experience in other gender-focused projects as well.