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.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.