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.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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