”As maids, we do not have any spaces to freely talk with each other; employers’ homes are as restricted as our own crowded homes…” Bunmali, 29 yrs from Bengal in Gurugram.
“I have been facing mental stress and serious doubts about myself, but I do not have a safe space to talk to anyone…” 20 yrs student Aakash studying in Chandigarh.
” I want to meet my friends from school to talk about the difficulty of studying online; but there is no safe space to go to in my colony”…14 years old young Suman in Panipat.
“I am unable to share with anyone the risks I am facing at my workplace; my supervisor touches me unwantedly and I am unable to speak with anyone…”Young IT professional Maitreyi in Bengaluru.
” I am alone at home; my grown-up kids are busy online throughout the day; I want to share stories of my wife who passed away during the pandemic…”Pramod, a 68-year-old retired principal in Vijaywada.
”I went for a walk in this beautiful garden in Ranchi last week with my young colleague; she wanted to share about her career prospects in the university, but we felt uncomfortable as passers-by were staring all the time…no safe space in the city”…40 years old university professor Manoj.
“I am gay, and my classmates in engineering college know that; in the hostel, I find no space to share my own journey with anyone…”22 years old Deepak in Hyderabad.
Over the past two years, the pandemic has exposed the realities of diminishing ‘safe spaces’ for conversation and support. The statements above indicate how young and old, rural or urban, rich or poor, women and men…all of us need ‘spaces’ to be able to be ourselves. In many crowded homes and bastis, many crowded workplaces, schools, and colleges, it is not easy to find a small physical space where someone can share their stories, hopes, and anxieties easily, without being labeled, harassed, bullied, or stigmatized.
But such spaces need not be merely physical. Emotional safety in relationships is also an essential space for feeling comfortable and at ease. In today’s context, stress arising out of disruptions caused due to the pandemic has accentuated the recognition that we all need safe spaces for conversations without prejudice.
In order to share our anxieties and fears, relationships and conversations have to be navigated in safe spaces. But, we have learned certain prejudices, labels, slang, and orientations that others may find offensive, discriminatory and demeaning. In order to unlearn (and re-learn) ourselves, safe spaces for sharing, questioning, and dialogue are needed. Many educational institutions and programs are not mindful of such requirements and tend to restrict opportunities for sharing, openness, and questioning with other students, teachers, peers, etc.
Cultural symbols and norms in families, organizations, and public spheres can also create an impression of a lack of sense of safety. Flags, paintings, statues…many different artifacts can create a feeling of being unsafe in a place. While the majority may identify with them and find them appealing, they may be offensive to certain minorities. In such situations, open sharing and expression get stifled and withheld, thereby further distancing relations.
Of late, the ever-expanding use of digital media has made many feel unsafe in cyber spaces. Cyber-bullying, trolling and all other abusive, stigmatised labelling on social media has caused a growing sense of discomfort amongst young users of such technology to share their stories and perspectives on such platforms. Growing installation of digital cameras in public places, ostensibly for increasing security, also tend to create feelings of being unsafe in some locations and contexts.
A societal culture that encourages open expression of opinions and perspectives, without being offensive, tends to encourage creativity. When disagreements in opinions and approaches can be safely shared in public dialogues and conversations, society becomes more tolerant and inclusive. Social capital is nurtured in such a public sphere which encourages the expression of differences candidly. Households live in greater comfort where the young can question their elders openly.
Organizations become resilient when their members can feel safe to express different opinions. Democracies thrive when citizens feel safe to engage, question and collaborate, without prejudice and hesitation.
Are we mindful of promoting & facilitating safe spaces for all as we ‘recover’ from the pandemic?
This article was first published in Times of India titled Safe Spaces Needed dated 29 October 2021.
Read another piece on Trust Matters by Rajesh Tandon titled Trust Matters in IMPRI Insights
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About The Author
Dr Rajesh Tandon is Founder President of PRIA, New Delhi. He is also a Guest Speaker with IMPRI, New Delhi.