The School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, in collaboration with the Media Division at Burhani College of Arts and Commerce, Mumbai organized a panel discussion with the authors of the book ‘Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets’,  Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan & Shilpa Ranade.

‘Safe for women’ is, and has always been Mumbai’s insignia.  The book examines the preciousness of this insignia and the standards therefore set for women’s safety in India. I must say the findings are most interesting! Staff and students participated enthusiastically in the discussion that followed the book review.

The balance carrying the burden of disease is unfairly heavy on women.  Women’s health is an extensively researched subject in global public health. Not restricted to maternal health, public health research is addressing proximal factors such as unequal power relationships, education and even mental/ physical/ sexual violence.  Loitering, and access to public spaces is yet another core influence.  The book treads on the horizon of a women’s health view captured from a wide-angle lens.  Safe access to public spaces is very closely linked to physical, mental, and social health.

A key determinant of women’s health is ‘choice’.  Globally there are some very significant debates on ‘choice’, but my thought process as I read this book was: do women make healthy choices in their everyday lives?  Do women have ‘healthy choices’ to make in their everyday lives?  When women must or when they choose to access public spaces, what are the mental, physical and social risks they must take?  The authors detail what it means to ‘loiter’ and the right to take risks.

Last year, when I started reading the book, I was not surprised by the parallels I could draw with public health, but indeed was very excited to read a very well articulated research book that stood at the center of women’s well being and therefore, their health. The book neatly brought home the fundamental and upstream nature of ‘the right to access public spaces, and having fun’, among other factors.  That is when I contacted the authors and a media studies institute in the neighborhood to initiate a discussion with the youth.

If one aimed to hit the nail on its head, ‘loitering’ probably would not make it to the list of public health goals 2020.  However, ‘safety’ would.  Safety of women is integral to their health and therefore their very existence.  Loitering, or being outside guarded spaces in public domain, is an activity often looked upon with great suspicion.  I purposely use the term ‘guarded spaces’ rather than ‘safe spaces’ because often women are not safe within their homes or community spaces.  In a multi-country study concerning violence against women, WHO reported that 15- 71% women across the globe experience physical/ sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives1.

Shilpa Phadke talked about ‘unfriendly spaces’ for women, which could be anywhere.  While the outside is deemed unsafe often, domestic spaces are unsafe!  There is as much domestic abuse and violence as well as community prying and interference.

The idea of this discussion though was not to amalgamate public health and loitering, but to get young minds thinking and talking about women’s access to public spaces and victimization of women when they attempt to do so.  And talk they did.  Girls and boys identified with the questions raised by the authors.  Some came up with their own experiences of being criticized for their attitudes or attire even though they were victims of Eve teasing2 or molestation.  Boys spoke of how clearly their female friends were discriminated against in society.  Everyone agreed about the horrendous physical violence against women, and how women continue to be victimized because they must provide reasons for being out alone as if they asked to be raped or molested.  Sameera Khan brought into discussion how women absolutely always must provide a good- enough reason to step out of confined spaces. Often we’ve found that women who lived in homogenous neighborhoods dominated by their own community find their movements more policed by the family and community.

The book also examines the physical infrastructure in the public spaces.  A city must provide basic infrastructure for all. Example: public toilets.

As we interacted with the audience, Shilpa Ranade asked ‘ If aliens landed in Mumbai today, and the first thing they saw was a public toilet, what inferences would they draw about humans?’.  The first impressions would be:

  1. Men outnumber women, clearly because number of urinals for men far outnumber the number of toilets for women.     
  2. Women don’t need to pee after 9 pm, because the women’s toilets are locked at 9 pm!

Interviews with women have revealed that they alter their fluid intake according to their possible access to a toilet. They hold the urge to pee for the longest times, avoid going to places where there will be no public or clean toilet.  It comes as no surprise therefore that urinary incontinence and bladder infections are common in Indian women.

I cannot imagine what the aliens would make of the fact that women must pay to pee but men do not. What is it about sitting-and-peeing versus standing-and-peeing that deserves to be taxed? I really do wonder about that. Seriously, if we are putting a cost to the service provided, then either everyone pays or no one pays.  There should be no judgment about whether someone is sitting or standing inside or for what purpose a toilet is being used.

Lack of safe access to public spaces is linked to the excessive cases of rape, molestation, violence against women, or even the burden of heart disease and obesity in women.  A health practitioner could simply suggest regular exercise for those at risk of chronic diseases.  However, class, caste and gender strongly determine whether the patient can follow this advice.  The public health implications from lack of access to public spaces are wide.

A young lady in the crowd raised a very relevant and important question.  She wanted to know how does one deal with cultures and if the book offers a solution to this.  In a city like Mumbai, people from various communities reside in pockets but their paths cross in various spaces.  A behavior acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in another.  Space for everyone should not be compromised but how does one do it with cultural sensitivity?   Shilpa Ranade very aptly addressed her question reminding us that cultural sensitivity is of utmost importance and cultures are transient.  Thus, one must be sensitive at all times and this question is worthy of being raised over and over again.  The book does address some cultural aspects.  As it develops, a city must accommodate people of all religions, class, caste and gender rather than disregard anyone.

The book is very Mumbai centric but I am sure it would invoke relevant discussions and debates in communities across the globe.  We hope that these discussions will multiply and lead to demand for equal access to public spaces across gender, class, and caste.  Better health will come to be as a by- product of these equalities.  The existence of a vaccine did not eradicate small pox.  When every person in the world had access to the vaccine, the world was free of small- pox.

Hitakshi Sehgal


I thank Dr. Farrukh Waris, principal of Burhani College, Mumbai for collaborating with us and hosting this discussion.

I am grateful also to, Mr. Shridhar Naik, Prof. Sunita Bajaj, Prof. Vijaylakshmi Nair, and the students of Burhani College for making this event a success.

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