Making Cities Safer for Women and Girls, Part I


It is now well established that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and that urbanisation is causing cities to grow at an exponential rate. Although the impacts of urbanisation are felt by everyone, the experiences of women and girls in cities, and their use of the city and its public spaces, are strongly impacted by their gender. Violence and the threat of violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a pervasive problem that affects communities and cities everywhere. While many advances have been made in the elimination of VAWG, much of the focus was on intimate partner violence (IPV) inside the home, rather than women’s safety in urban spaces. Outside the home violence can affect women and girls in the workplace, at school, in streets, parks, public squares, and on public transport, and limit their opportunities for employment and education. Women must no longer be seen as passive victims, but rather as essential actors in transforming cities to be gender equitable, safe and inclusive. For women to genuinely achieve gender equality, and realise their right to the city, they must be empowered to take part in urban life and its governance free from fear of intimidation and violence.

In the past, responsibility was often put on women to ensure their own safety by changing their behaviours such as modifying their dress or when they went out. Over the past fifteen years, however, women have been actively participating in initiatives to enhance urban safety and increase their role in the decision-making process, especially at the local level. They have shown that women’s safety in urban settings requires many sectors and people to change. The “right to the city” movement has underlined that women and girls should be as free to move about their city as men and boys, while recent campaigns to stop street-harassment have helped to raise awareness of the importance of safe and equal access to public spaces.

International norms and conventions are also changing to reflect this perspective. The 2013 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women identified “various forms of sexual violence against women and girls (SVAWG) in public spaces as a distinct area of concern, and called on governments to prevent it”. This is reinforced in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Goal 5 on gender equality and Goal 11 on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, and in the recently adopted New Urban Agenda. The considerable work which has already been achieved to highlight the significance of gender issues in developing safer cities, provides a strong research base on which to build, and valuable lessons to draw from for the future. It is crucial to continue working to integrate gender in the development of safer cities. This article highlights some of the findings of that work and directions for the future.

Women experiencing the city – Prevalence and pertinence of women’s (un)safety in public spaces

Many factors influence the relationship a person has with a public space in a city, and the other people who are in it. Gender is strongly linked to sense of safety, which in turn affects behaviour and shapes how the city is used and its resources accessed. Street surveys as part of the Gender Inclusive Cities Programme (2009-2012) revealed that women in Rosario, Argentina; Petrozavodsk, Russia; Delhi, India; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania identified gender as the number one personal-identity related factor that contributes to their lack of safety.

Findings from a 2011 Gallup Poll surveying 143 countries, showed that there is a worldwide gap between the sense of safety felt by men and by women, and that this gap was more pronounced in high and middle-income countries where physical safety has increased with economic and social development. Figure 1 shows the countries with the greatest difference between men and women’s sense of safety – the ‘safety gender gap’. Worldwide 10% more men than women feel safe walking alone at night in their neighbourhood, but in high income countries this number jumps to 23%.

Table with feeling of safety survey results

In other words, men in high-income countries felt much safer than women. New Zealand had the greatest gender safety gap of 35%, while 67.5% of the overall population felt safe walking home at night, this applied to only 50% of women compared with 85% of the men (Ibid). The difference is striking, and provides a clear example of why it is important to disaggregate data by at least age and gender to show the different experiences of men and women. Unfortunately many countries and municipalities do not collect sex-differentiated data.

Part of the sense of insecurity women and girls feel comes from the prevalence of sexual harassment in public spaces. Unfortunately sexual harassment is normalised in many countries, and women and girls accept it as part of their daily experience in public space. A 2014 study in the United States found that many people changed their behaviour as a result of harassment: 47% of women and 32% of men started constantly assessing their surroundings, and 31% of women opted to go out in a group or with another person instead of alone.

Public transportation contributes to the different gendered experiences in the city. In many countries women depend on and use it more and differently than men because of their specific daily routines and responsibilities, yet public transportation is one of the key sites where women and girls feel unsafe and experience harassment or violence. In a 2013 study of adolescent girls in Cairo (Egypt), Delhi (India), Hanoi (Vietnam), Lima (Peru), and Kampala (Uganda), girls from each city said they feel uncomfortable, unsafe and disrespected when travelling on buses. One primary reason for feeling insecure was bystander apathy when harassment occurred. Sexual harassment on public transit is chronically underreported, evidenced by a study in London, England that found this figure to be over 90% for the city. As a result, some transit systems have launched anti-harassment campaigns to combat the issue and educate the public on how to provide support when witnessing harassment. They include London’s Report it to stop it campaign, Paris’s Stop, ça suffit, and a campaign in Washington D.C.. Many of the campaigns encourage bystanders and victims to report harassment, through easy-to-use phone apps and online platforms.

The photo on the right shows an example of a campaign by the drivers of boda boda motorcycle taxis in Kampala, Uganda, who wear bright yellow vests with the question “A real man promotes girls’ safety. Do you?”.

Other transit initiatives include a project initiated in the 1990s to increase women’s safety on buses, the ‘between two stops’ policy that permits women in Montreal, Canada to get off in-between planned stops after dark, reducing the walking distance to their homes. In India, Jagori, a Delhi based NGO, developed and delivers training for bus drivers on the safety of female passengers. Many others have since followed suit, with gender equity, safety and sensitivity trainings offered in Washington D.C., USA; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Mexico City, Mexico.

One response to preventing SVAWG on public transit has been the creation of segregated subway cars and buses and ‘women-only’ taxis. While this may have some advantages, it is a limited solution that does not attack the problem at its source – the normalisation and tolerance of sexual harassment of women. In 2014 more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Japan, India, Mexico, and Nepal, all offered women-only transit options.

Boda Boda driver's vest for the girls' safety campaign, Uganda © Kathryn Travers

Insecurity and sexual harassment extend well beyond the use of public transportation in many countries. Public infrastructure, including access to toilets, sanitation and water, is often very poorly adapted to the needs of women and girls. For example, in communities without private toilets and water supplies, women and girls risk harassment and assault both during the day and at night when they use the toilet or perform their household responsibilities to collect water, clean, and dispose of waste. An action research project undertaken in Delhi in 2009-2011 used gender budget analysis and safety audits to evaluate access to essential services. With no private access to water in homes, women and girls were forced to rely on poorly maintained community toilet complexes with fees and limited hours during the day and that closed at night, resulting in consequences related to their health and safety. Many women work in the informal sector, as street vendors or trash collectors for example, which requires them to use public spaces as their workspace. Thus there is ample evidence to show how gender affects access to resources, opportunities, and sense of safety throughout the city – creating quite different sets of experiences for women and girls and men and boys.

Read part II of this article here

Kathryn Travers
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