On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, URBANET features an article by Cathy McIlwaine that discusses the question of gender-based violence in cities.
In March 2018, Marielle Franco, a Rio councillor who championed the rights of women, black people, LQBTIQ, and the poor, was assassinated along with her driver Anderson Gomes. Franco’s murder was symptomatic of all the worst aspects of urban violence that has permeated cities of the global South in recent years. She was gunned down in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, but she had been raised in the favela of Maré in the north of the city. There, she had worked as a community activist for many years. Her murder, along with the reactions to it, serve as a stark reminder of the fragilities for women’s lives in cities – yet also of their ability to confront them.
The Paradoxes of Urban Living for Women
Marielle Franco’s life and death also reflect the paradox of urban living for women with respect to gender-based violence (GBV). On the one hand, residing in cities can provide some freedoms from patriarchal strictures if it enables women to access educational and livelihood opportunities that are absent in the countryside. Franco came from poor roots in the favela via a university education to the Rio city council.
Yet, on the other hand, urbanisation certainly does not guarantee gender equality and a life free from GBV. Franco’s life was brutally ended as she confronted the state and especially the police about their widespread targeting of the poor, and especially the black poor. Arguably, she also contravened the gender order that is hostile to women who challenge the state or wider status quo, both of which feature the deep-seated gender inequalities which are at the core of GBV.
These paradoxes of GBV in cities extend beyond the trade-offs between opportunities and constraints. 35 per cent of women globally experience GBV. Levels are higher in urban areas, even though the relationship between such violence and urbanisation is not clear-cut. For instance, UN-Habitat has suggested that women are twice as likely to experience GBV in cities, especially GBV inflicted by someone other than an intimate partner. While the root causes of GBV lie in gender asymmetries and power imbalances, living in cities can increase the risks of exposure to it through living in certain areas of the cities with high levels of ‘everyday’ urban violence in overcrowded housing with limited access to public services and security.
Urban Violence is Always Gendered
Indeed, in most cities of the Global South, murder rates are higher among men than women. Yet this hides the fact that urban violence in general is deeply gendered. In the same community where Franco was raised, recent research has shown that 76 per cent of 801 women surveyed stated that GBV is a frequent aspect of community life, with almost 40 per cent stating they had personally experienced it.
This occurs in a context of exceptionally high ‘everyday’ violence generated by four of Rio de Janeiro’s Armed Criminal Groups (ACGs) together with continual police operations that in 2017 alone resulted in 42 deaths and 41 people wounded, both men and women. Not only do women get caught in the crossfire, but gang members routinely extend their violent use of power to their intimate relationships.
In another paradox, cities can also provide sanctuary for women survivors of GBV to a much greater extent than in rural areas. In part, this is related to the higher concentration of state and non-governmental organisation services available for helping women. Yet this does not ensure high levels of disclosure and reporting, especially in peripheral communities.
Returning to Maré, only 35 per cent of women disclosed or reported GBV to friends or formal sources, mainly because they felt they would not be believed or no help would be given. Indeed, many women spoke of having to turn to extra-judicial forms of ‘parallel power’ to deal with violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the absence of a state willing to intervene and to follow through with cases to punish perpetrators. This was noted by Lina:
‘I wanted the law to keep him from me, but then I saw that, unfortunately, because I live in a poor community, they do not do what the law asks … I’ve heard their [gangs] way is to kill or some other threat: “Man, go away and never come back, because if you come and we see you, we’ll kill you”’.
However, many women live in fear and silence. In Mariah’s words:
‘I watched a lot. I close my eyes, like this … I’ve seen many things happen and I could not speak because you cannot speak … What can you talk about? We cannot. There’s a man beating a woman.’
No Passive Victims
Despite all this, women are not passive victims and they have agency, albeit constrained. Not only do they turn to alternative forms of protection when the state refuses to serve their needs, but they also challenge dominant power relations, however small the steps they can take. In Maré, the Casa das Mulheres, opened in 2016. The project provides support to women who have suffered GBV, works closely together with various projects aimed at enhancing women’s livelihoods and independence, and provides information about their rights as citizens and their right to the city.
The Casa das Mulheres is not alone. Multiple initiatives, too numerous to mention by name, exist throughout cities of the South. Many of them work with women only, while a lot fewer work with men. Some address only the symptoms of GBV while others deal with the structural causes. The prevalence of more tolerant mind-sets in cities provide opportunities when it comes to gender in cities, and we must be fully grasp and exploit them to a much greater extent.
A Right to the City
But the following must be clear from the outset: VAWG in cities is not a ‘minority issue’ affecting vulnerable populations. It fundamentally affects how cities function. Women have the right to live in cities free from fear and violence. This must be addressed through dealing with structural gender inequalities, through concerted state and non-state action, at national and local levels. It is not women’s responsibility to report, to address, to reduce GBV. Men have responsibilities too. The future of cities is female and it is essential that this female urban future is one free from gender-based violence: a future that would make Marielle Franco proud.