Madras 384 | The Dream: Chennai’s journey towards gender-inclusive urban excellence

On Madras Week, the story goes beyond iconic structures. Explore how the city is making strides in gender-inclusive urban development.

ByThe Gender and Policy Lab

Published Aug 23, 2023 | 1:00 PMUpdated Aug 23, 2023 | 1:00 PM

Madras 384 | The Dream: Chennai’s journey towards gender-inclusive urban excellence

Picture this: A vibrant Indian city that strives to embrace gender and sexual diversity, catering thoughtfully in design and services to individuals of every age, socio-economic section, and cultural context.

A beautiful city that boasts expansive public areas, along with a well-networked and affordable transportation system that seeks to be safe, inclusive, and accessible to all.

A city where every transit junction has little neighbourhood nooks buzzing actively with vendors and indispensable services readily attending to your daily necessities.

There, your neighbourhood Akka sells groceries and a well-lit bus stop is just a few metres away.

There are clean public toilets for all genders operating 24×7, live music sessions on designated street corners, and children playing in PWD-friendly parks.

The women here walk freely, are vocal, and meander without drawing attention.

This is the “dream” that Chennai is gradually working towards turning into a reality for its citizens.

Also Read: TN widows pin their hopes on new government scheme 

A stellar example

The city of Vienna in Austria has long been cited as a stellar example of a city that has excelled in gender mainstreaming since the 1990s.

This means the city has consciously incorporated the concerns and requirements of all genders, not just men, into every project, activity, policy, or initiative, ensuring it caters to every resident.

Gender club module release.

Gender Club Module release by Chennai Mayor Priya R and Deputy Commissioner of Education Sharanya Ari. (Supplied)

In 1992, Vienna established a Women’s Office to examine the city from a female perspective.

From wide pedestrian pavements accommodating prams and wheelchairs, to gender-inclusive street names and signage, the city has made enormous strides to ensure its design is inclusive for all.

As we celebrate 384 years of Madras’s existence, the nation stands in awe of its vibrant history, remarkable cultural accomplishments, and impressive political strides.

Yet, an equally captivating narrative emerges — the resolute progressive steps taken in recent times towards gender inclusivity that are set to enhance both the city’s functionality and its residents’ lives.

Also Read: Tamil Nadu launches free breakfast scheme for school children

Gender-inclusive initiatives

In a state and city that is known for its pioneering women-centric initiatives and ranks high on inclusivity indices, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) operationalised the Gender and Policy Lab (GPL) in February 2022.

Supported by the Nirbhaya funds and established through the Chennai City Partnership, the Gender and Policy Lab focuses on improving access and safety for all, especially women and girls, in public spaces and transport.

Gender and Policy Lab launch event.

Gender and Policy Lab launch event. (Supplied)

This is accomplished through various activities such as studies, campaigns, orientation programs, and training sessions.

Is the city sensitive to understanding what women perceive as safe and unsafe? Are there areas of concern in the city that worry users? Do parks offer gym equipment preferred by women? Are helpline numbers displayed at railway stations? Can we eliminate open spaces behind bus stops to discourage public urination?

Chennai stands as a pioneering example in India, being the only city to have a gender-focused entity within an Urban Local Body that helps planners understand gender-specific needs in the design of public spaces and introduces initiatives and projects with a dedicated focus on addressing these needs.

Also Read: 500 Urban Health Centres launched by Chief Minister MK Stalin

Insights and action 

To truly understand how women feel about Namma Chennai, the Lab conducted a perception study. This study aims to comprehend women’s sense of safety and the challenges they face, while using public spaces and transportation.

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Perception study by GPL. (Supplied)

Have you encountered any difficulties in public places in the last three months? What factors influence the choice of transport for women in your household? What are the top three improvements to ensure women’s safety in Chennai?

These questions were posed to 3,000 participants through focus group discussions and surveys in households, public spaces, and transit points from Thiruvottiyur to Shollinganallur.

The study’s findings hold immense value as baseline data to kickstart a series of gender-focused initiatives for the city of Chennai.

With solid data comes insight and with insight comes a need for action!

In this journey, continuous engagement, data-driven decision-making, and collaboration between government bodies, community organisations, and citizens will be key to realising the vision of a more inclusive and equitable Chennai.

Also Read: Don’t ignore criticism over schemes on social media, MK Stalin tells officials

Governance ecosystem

The people of Chennai are proactive in reporting grievances, whether through calls, social media, resident welfare associations, or elected representatives, ensuring a healthy governance ecosystem to address complaints.

Safety audit in Semmanchery. (Supplied)

Safety audit in Semmanchery. (Supplied)

From potholes in roads to areas susceptible to rain damage, the people of Chennai are quick to alert the authorities.

A study by the Lab of the GCC managed 1,913 grievances for the year 2021-22, highlighting the need to introduce gender-focused changes to enhance this already robust public system.

Consequently, a gender category has been added during registration, along with 22 new complaint categories, to receive gender-disaggregated data.

The on-ground zonal engineers, who are the initial responders to many of these issues, can now prioritise gender-specific complaints and take necessary action.

Also Read: Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin launches seven new projects

Safe mobility

Chennai is enthusiastic about citizen and volunteer engagement.

Whether it’s climate action or pet fostering, individuals in Chennai are quick to step up and provide support.

A ten-day Citizens for Safe Mobility fellowship was held in March 2023, involving 22 individuals from diverse genders, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds.

As community champions, they were trained to conduct comprehensive safety audits using infrastructure checklists, the Safetipin app, and user interviews.

Citizens for Safe Mobility Fellows. (Supplied)

For instance, how does the stretch between the metro station and Central Station fare in the Chennai Central cluster? What’s the condition of public toilets and subways in this area? If an elderly woman carrying luggage had to use the approach roads daily, what challenges would she face?

The outcome of this fellowship led to identifying key design and social issues in transit and public spaces across seven clusters, and these were submitted to relevant departments for action.

Also Read: MK Stalin says DMK has fulfilled 85% of its poll promises

Holistic healthcare

Chennai proudly stands as one of the Indian cities with a young woman Mayor at the forefront. (Supplied)

Recognising domestic violence as a public health issue is another step towards creating a city with holistic healthcare that caters to victims of violence.

If a woman with bruises and emotional trauma were to visit a clinic for a routine check-up, how should the attending doctor respond?

In this effort, 50 Urban Primary Health Centre (UPHC) doctors were trained in recognising signs of domestic violence, including physical signs, responses to standard questions, and overall demeanour.

They were educated about necessary steps such as helpline services, medical care, and other larger services available in the city to address such situations.

Gender and economic empowerment

Chennai is embarking on a journey of transformative initiatives and innovative institutional mechanisms.

As a symbol of progress, Chennai proudly stands as one of the Indian cities with a young woman Mayor at the forefront.

R Priya assumed office as the Honourable Mayor of Chennai in February 2022.

11 lakh women benefit from the free travel programme instituted by the Government of Tamil Nadu. (Supplied)

In a monumental stride towards gender and economic empowerment, Chief Minister MK Stalin launched a transformative initiative in 2021 by introducing free bus travel for women, girls, and transgender individuals.

According to Metropolitan Transport Corporation data, the city witnesses a remarkable daily ridership of 28.66 lakh individuals using buses. Among them, a significant 11 lakh are women who avail of the beneficial free travel programme introduced by the Tamil Nadu government.

The Department of Social Welfare and Women’s Empowerment revamped its 181 Helpline Services in February 2021.

This resulted in the establishment of a round-the-clock mechanism ready to offer immediate and life-saving responses to women affected by violence.

To strengthen the city’s commitment to safeguarding women and children, the Greater Chennai Police initiated a pioneering effort — a squadron of all-women mobile police patrolling units.

Also Read: This women’s travel group is embracing sisterhood, one trip at a time

Commitment to progress

Training for engineers on gender and disability inclusion. (Supplied)

Training for engineers on gender and disability inclusion. (Supplied)

While challenges and areas needing improvement may exist, the collective efforts of various stakeholders demonstrate a strong commitment to progress.

The dedication to creating a city where every thought and action resonates with inclusivity is a potent aspiration. It has the potential to transform Chennai into a model for other urban areas striving for gender-sensitive planning and service delivery.

Perhaps, the city is not far from becoming the next Vienna.

(The Gender and Policy Lab is a four-member entity within the Special Projects Department of the Greater Chennai Corporation)

(‘Madras 384’ is a curated compilation of articles that joyfully celebrate the captivating journey of Chennai, also known as Madras, while inspiring meaningful discussions.)