Can the New Urban Agenda make the world’s cities safer for women and girls?

The slums of Mumbai. Indian cities have often been in the news thanks to fears about women's safety on public transport. Image: Getty.

One in three women around the world currently experience gender-based violence. Harmful practices such as trafficking, forced marriage, domestic violence and female genital mutilation occur both in public and in private spaces. Today, these forms of violence are recognised as a major violation of human rights, a public health challenge and one of the clearest forms of gender discrimination. It’s also widely acknowledged that women experience heightened levels of violence in cities.

Tens of thousands of delegates from right across the globe met in Quito, Ecuador, to discuss the future of cities at the UN’s Habitat III conference, where the fifth and final version of the New Urban Agenda was adopted by member states. The document will help to guide urban policy around the world for the next 20 years. Which begs the question: how have women’s voices and gender issues been incorporated into it?

Impressively, with each new draft of this latest document, women’s views are increasingly being taken on board. Consultation took place at a range of levels, with notable contributions from important global networks that fight for women’s rights and gender equality, such as Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) and the Huairou Commission.

Living without fear

From the first draft to the final document, references to women more than doubled from 14 paragraphs to 32, out of 175. The final document explicitly states that cities should:

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal rights in all fields and in leadership at all levels of decision-making, and by ensuring decent work and equal pay for equal work, or work of equal value for all women, as well as preventing and eliminating all forms of discrimination, violence and harassment against women and girls in private and public spaces.

The fact that these commitments explicitly address the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls in public and private spaces, as well as safety and security for women in cities, is a major achievement.

In particular, there are three commitments that have the potential, not just to empower individual women, but also to transform gender power relations in cities. These include land tenure rights for women, which gives women individual titles to land. When integrated into land regulation procedures, measures like these can transform gender power relations because it means women no longer have to depend on men in order to access land, as seen in Recife, Brazil.

Another key commitment relates to informal economy opportunities for women in terms of “livelihoods, working conditions, income security, legal and social protection”. Access to an independent income for those working in the informal economy – such as waste-pickers and recyclers – empowers women, while successfully contesting legal rights can change structural power relations by reducing their dependence on men for financial resources.

Get rights. Image: Jonathan Stening/Flickr/creative commons.

The third commitment relates to calls for cities with “public spaces and streets, free from crime and violence, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence”. This empowers women by enhancing their mobility, and access to both education and employment opportunities, which can allow them to live more independent lives.


Watered down

Yet some measures to address violence against women and girls were diluted throughout the five drafts. The first draft not only identified the importance of preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls in cities, it also specified how it should be addressed: through a range of measures, including the “investigation, prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators”.

It also called for the provision of services for survivors, recognition “that the treatment of women and girls can be a broader reflection of societal norms” and a commitment to “using education and public awareness campaigns as a further tool against abuse”.

But by the final draft, making places safer for women and girls had become a matter relating merely to the design and management of infrastructure and urban public spaces – for instance, by ensuring transport is accessible and improving urban sanitation. There was no acknowledgement that many of the problems faced by women and girls are caused by underlying gender inequalities in society. And in the paragraph on urban safety, crime and violence prevention, women are entirely ignored.

Throughout the agenda, women are typically referred to as part of a composite, monolithic and vulnerable group. There are continual references to “age and gender-responsive” interventions – but very little clarity as to what this means or involves in practice.

In fact, only one practical commitment was made, to age and gender-responsive budgeting. This involves strengthening the capacity of national, sub-national and local governments to ensure that there are equal numbers of women represented throughout all state institutions, and to take women’s needs into account in the allocation of state budgets.

Compromises have to be made when agreeing on global agendas and the inclusion of women is complex and contradictory. But if the UN’s agenda is to effectively address issues of violence against women and girls, it needs to clarify the meaning of generic “gender-responsive” commitments, and consider women specifically, rather than as part of a larger group of “vulnerable” citizens.

While design and management can play an important role in forging safer cities, it is essential to move beyond these aspects, in order to transform gender relations in urban spaces around the world over the next 20 years.

Caroline Moser is emeritus professor at the University of ManchesterCathy McIlwaine is professor of geography at Queen Mary University of London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. It is part of a series on publicly funded UK research at the UN Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador. It is a collaboration between the Urban Transformations Network, UK Economic and Social Research Council and The Conversation UKRead the original article here.The Conversation

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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