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.