Women should take back every night, every day, every hour of the year

A protest in Delhi, to mark the rape and murder of a 23 year old student on the city's public transport a year earlier. Image: AFP/Getty.

Have you ever crossed the street to avoid a man walking behind you? When dim street lights cast long shadows across the car park, do you ever get your keys out in anticipation so you can get into your vehicle as quickly as possible? Have you ever been groped on a crowded bus or train, or had a man push up against you, subtly but undoubtedly, when there was no room to escape? Have you ever been the target of unwelcome comments of a sexual nature, whistling, leering or obscene gestures when simply going about your business?

If you are woman living in a city anywhere in the world then the answers to at least one, if not all, of these questions is most likely “yes”. And for many, their experiences of harassment and violence in public spaces are much more severe. Far too many women and girls globally are harassed, assaulted, raped and even murdered in streets, in parks and plazas, in schools, in work places, and while using public transportation. Such violence was brought to the world’s attention in 2012 when a young student was brutally gang raped on a public bus in Delhi and ultimately died.

Public spaces are gendered – and the omnipresence of violence greatly influences the way women and girls interact with space. It reduces their ability to participate in school, work and in public life. It limits their access to essential services, and enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. It negatively impacts their health and well-being.

Think of Saudi Arabia where women are prohibited from driving. Think of the recent introduction of women-only train carriages in Egypt, India, Japan, and Malaysia, in an attempt to reduce widespread sexual assaults. Think of Port Moresby where women face high levels of sexual violence in market places, or other cities where women are virtually barred from the public sphere unless accompanied by a male family member.

But the gendered nature of urban space is not only a problem in developing countries. Recall the recent video that went viral of a young woman walking through the streets of New York, who encountered more than 100 instances of verbal harassment within 10 hours. In London, in a poll conducted in 2012 by the Ending Violence Against Women Coalition, 43 percent of young women said that they had experienced street harassment in the past year alone. In France, a study conducted in 2013 by the National Institute of Statistics and Economics Studies found one in four women experienced fear when walking on the street.

Today is International Human Rights Day, and the end of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. All women and girls have the right to be safe in the neighbourhoods where they live, the cities where they work, and the public spaces designed for leisure.

The concept of safe public spaces for women gained popularity in the 1970s with protest marches to “take back the night”, raising awareness of and support for women's free and equal use of city spaces. Since then many positive and tangible steps have been taken to reclaim not just the night, but to create more peaceful, safe and equitable urban spaces for all, every hour of the day, every day of the year.

The Greater London Authority, the City of Manchester, the Dutch Housing Ministry, and others have conducted interviews and created guidelines for increasing women’s and girls’ security, and empowered local women to improve the design, access and facilities in their neighbourhoods. Elsewhere, there’s the United Nations “Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls” Global Programme, which operates in cities like Cairo, New Delhi, Quito (Ecuador), Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea) and Kigali (Rwanda); and which is developing, implementing, and evaluating comprehensive approaches to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and other violence in public areas.

In another example, “Gender Inclusive Cities” like Delhi, Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Rosario (Argentina), and Petrozavodsk (Russia) use focus groups and women’s safety audits, to help identify problems. They then engage with the governments, non-profit organisations and citizen groups to design and implement strategies that can bring about significant changes in women’s safety and rights to the city.

Still, the safe cities for women approach is a relatively new area that requires further development of knowledge and experiences. Today the global programme What Works to Prevent Violence, funded by Britain’s Department of International Development, announced 18 ground-breaking projects that it is funding across Asia, Africa and the Middle East to learn what works to prevent violence against women and girls.

A number of the projects being supported work to address women’s and girls’ safety in urban areas and public spaces: a project in Bangladesh to address sexual harassment in garment factories, a programme working in informal settlements in South Africa to promote women’s empowerment, an intervention in Kenya using economic empowerment and self-defence training to prevent sexual assault of adolescent girls. These innovative new programmes, and many others, are moving us towards a world where all women and girls can enjoy their fundamental right to live free from violence.

By recognising that cities are gendered, ensuring that women’s safety is prioritised, and engaging women in all aspects of urban development and planning, public spaces have the potential to lift us all up, advance our freedom and happiness, and help us meet our greatest potential.

Emma Fulu works for Medical Research Council in South Africa. She is also technical lead for “What Works to Prevent Violence” Global Programme, on the gendered nature of urban spaces and how the omnipresence of violence greatly influences the way women and girls interact with the world around them.

You can learn more about the programme here.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.