Women's access to public spaces is limited. But gender is not the only determination of reduced access; while examining Mumbai's public spaces with regard to safety for women for the Gender and Space project at Mumbai-based Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR) we realised that our study predominantly focused on younger women. But surely age further curtails women's mobility and increases isolation and vulnerability. We began, therefore, to question how older women's access to the city would differ from their younger counterparts. To our surprise, we found that older women's concerns were overlooked not just by city planners while conceptualizing public places, but also in feminist/academic discourses on public spaces.
It is not that older women alone are marginalised. Older men and children also get pushed onto peripheral spaces. Class, caste, gender and age too are factors that shape people's interaction with public spaces. But we at PUKAR became interested in seeing how the elderly, specifically older women, experience the city.
Over six lakh senior citizens live in Mumbai . But the only time one hears of them is when there is a murder, suicide or when a senior is abandoned; little newsprint space is given to the elderly otherwise. Much like the selective media reportage of violence against women in public spaces, senior citizens merit attention only when an untoward event occurs. But there are differences too. Contrary to violence against women - that is always depicted in public spaces - violence against the elderly is usually confined within the four walls of a home. Their daily trials and tribulations receive no attention. While violence against senior citizens is not proportionately higher than against other groups; acts of aggression against them are exaggerated by the media, thus further exacerbating their fear .
For nearly all the participants nana-nani parks provided a space to interact and make new friends. Such parks also provided space for laughter and yoga clubs, and senior citizens' associations that organize occasional weekend gatherings and excursions. While most nana-nani parks in Mumbai are open to all age groups, two parks, the Girgaum Chowpatty nana-nani park and the Aji-Ajoba park at Dadar are reserved exclusively for seniors.
Most participants, however, preferred a park open to all as this gave them an opportunity to interact with all age groups instead of being restricted to the company of their peers. While nana-nani parks do create a space for seniors in the city, they are not necessarily the answer to issues of space and isolation that plague the elderly. Just as compartments reserved for women in local trains do make women's commute easier, but do not ward off instances of harassment and discrimination. Spaces segregated for marginalised groups are a way of recognising their rights to public spaces, but they are not a solution.
Public transport too needs to be examined to determine the nature of senior citizen's engagement with the city. For women who are less likely to own a vehicle than men - traveling by public transport is a more important option . Most women said they prefer to travel by bus, cabs and autorickshaws as opposed to trains, which they found difficult to negotiate. "Though there is reservation for seniors in Western, Central, and Harbour lines, most seniors find the time (11 to 1 pm and 3 pm to 4.30 pm) clashing with their recreation hours and too inconvenient to commute," informs John Thattil, regional director, HelpAge India. "Similarly few seniors take advantage of the reservation in buses. They feel embarrassed to ask someone to vacate the seat," he adds. Research shows that the elderly are more likely to be pedestrians and users of public transport .
Age and gender
Another area of interest for us related to the impact of age on gender issues. Thattil insists that age is an equaliser and women handle aging better than men. But what is important to note is that with age, women's fears only grow. For both men and women the threat of being attacked or robbed is a prime concern. However, women tend to harbour a greater fear. Also the fear of sexual violence does not fade away with age. Women still grapple with harassments like being nudged in a crowded bus, though they may not be a target of catcalls and lewd songs. While some said that age had reduced the threat of sexual harassment and given them greater mobility, others felt that deteriorating health rendered them hapless of defending themselves in case of an attack. As one participant said, factors like poor street lighting and deteriorating eyesight also deterred them from accessing public spaces at night.
Most women argued that they saw no reason to be out at night; like younger women they agreed that staying out at night was perceived to be 'asking for trouble'. Women, unlike men, feel forced to justify their presence in public spaces, and more so at night as their being out of the house without a 'legitimate purpose' is looked upon distrustfully and raises questions their 'respectability'.
Unlike their affluent and middle-class peers, women living in slums have limited access to public spaces and do not see the distinction between private and public spaces as clearly as middle and upper class women. Slum dwellers are compelled to live out their most private moments in public. Public spaces like nana-nani parks also often have an entrance fee, which though nominal is still unaffordable for them. While the parks do not reserve rights of admission, their presence will definitely not be welcomed by seniors who use these parks. Movie shows in multiplexes and weekend picnics organized by senior citizens' associations are luxuries they simply can't afford. Their inability to be one in the crowd further marginalises, isolates and subjugates them within the parks.
On the other hand, poorer women did not suffer the feelings of loneliness as much. All the poor women interviewed for the study worked for a couple of hours daily, and had the additional responsibility of tending to grandchildren. Their little free time was spent with the family and the community members, who usually belonged to the same village.
Women's access to public spaces also depends upon their marital status, in addition to class. Household chores often prevent married women - of all ages - from keeping late hours. Older married women however claim that they now go out more often owing to freedom from social responsibilities that age brings. Thus, their access to public space has definitely increased. Unmarried or widowed older women, on the other hand, have less access to space compared to their married counterparts, partly owing to the lack of company. But even they agreed that the presence of nana-nani parks and senior citizens' associations has made aging definitely less lonely.
In contrast to men and women living independently or in joint families, the elderly who live in old age homes have less mobility. "Most elderly living in old age homes are either abandoned or can't support themselves," states Thattil. In most old age homes there are timings that regulate their movements, and the elderly usually are not allowed to venture out without an escort. Access of inmates to public spaces or interaction with the outside world is thus limited or almost nonexistent. In fact an old age home in Bandra that I visited treats its elderly women like truant children, who need to be disciplined. They are pushed out of bed early for morning mass, and have fixed recreation timings after which they can't even watch television. The lights are switched off at a fixed hour and food is served at a fixed time too. There is little realisation that the elderly, like the rest of us, cherish independence and freedom and don't want to be hemmed in.
The concerns that older women face in the city are thus manifold. At the same time, many of their concerns are not particular to their age or gender, and addressing them - often requiring only minimal investments - will have broad gains for all citizens. Making the city safe for older women would make the city safe and accessible for others too. Better street lighting, lower bus steps, paved sidewalks, broad, unchipped steps on foot-over-bridges and usable public toilets - these would benefit many others, including children, the physically challenged, and pregnant women.