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

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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