Women all over the developing world face harassment, threats, and abuse on a daily basis. The brutal gang rape of a young medical student in New Delhi last December ignited India, and the rest of the world, leading to mass protests for women’s rights and demands for safer cities for all. The following examples from eight cities around the world demonstrate solutions to reduce violence and to help women feel safe on the streets, while using sanitation facilities, on public transportation, and even in their homes.
As a response to the rise in the number of sexual harassment incidents in Cairo following the 2011 revolution, Beit Hawa was created as the first comprehensive women’s shelter in the city. It serves not only as a safe communal space for women who face violence, but also provides them with psychological and financial counseling services, legal assistance, empowerment seminars, skills trainings, access to health programs and micro-loans, and a certificate to prove to their families their whereabouts and guard against any immoral behavior they may be charged with while seeking shelter.
In Lagos , gender safety concerns and urban sanitation issues are inextricably linked: 77 percent of women reported feeling unsafe when using public facilities. To address this issue, an organization was started to provide sanitation and hygiene services in Lagos, especially in low-income areas, markets and lorry parks. As part of their business model, the organization hires staff from local communities, including security guards, and female hygiene assistants for the women’s section. These gender-separated, secure, and accessible facilities are key in improving women’s safety in Lagos.
With women in Nairobi’s slums also facing sexual assault and rape, the “Kung Fu Grannies” self-defense program for elderly women has been successful in significantly decreasing the number of rape incidents, and putting women’s safety into their own hands. The program has also evolved recently to tackle some of the root causes of the violence: in addition to offering self-defense programs for women of all ages, it has developed an educational curriculum that separately targets girls and boys in classroom sessions to raise, challenge, and discuss attitudes and preconceptions of gender roles.
Key urban planning suggestions in Mumbai for creating a more egalitarian and safer city include an improved public transportation network, safer park areas, an increased number of public toilets, and a lively city full of bars and shops. While government interventions continue to be deliberated and tested, empowerment campaigns are making themselves heard, like the “Safe City Pledge,” which encourages women to take pictures of their personal steps toward fighting for their rights.
In Dhaka, public transportation is a main site for sexual harassment. To address this issue, the government has implemented policies requiring a certain number of seats to be reserved for women, as well as five separate buses for women. However, these initiatives are not enough to fully protect Dhaka’s women – more sustainable solutions involve addressing the root causes of harassment, such as implementing gender sensitivity education in schools. In Mexico City, too, women feel unsafe and are often sexually assaulted on public transportation. The government thus implemented the Atenea Program to provide transportation exclusively for women. This has ignited a debate on segregation and the effectiveness of women-only spaces versus other possible alternatives, such working with men to address the root causes of violence and improving the criminal justice system.
Domestic violence in Jakarta is all too common, despite a 2004 law protecting women and enforcing sanctions against perpetrators. The Women’s Crisis Center was created to assist victims in their physical, psychological, and social recovery process by providing counseling and legal aid. The center also runs campaigns on the eradication of violence against women and works to educate residents to prevent violence in their neighborhoods.
In Rio de Janeiro, The Women of Peace program plays a pivotal role in the city’s public security strategy. A community-based initiative financed by the Ministry of Justice, its a main objective is preventing violence and promoting “active citizenship” through community work led by women. Last year, the program trained 1,250 women from 47 communities in Rio to deal with concerns like gender issues, human rights, and violence prevention.
The severity and location of gender-based violence may differ slightly from one city to another, but the need for solutions is significant, especially in poor urban areas. The initiatives to fight the problem utilize several key approaches: they tackle the root causes of harassment through education, implement stricter policies to create safer public spaces, and they promote of communal action to empower women. Join us on URB.im, the global community for just and inclusive cities, to read more on preventing violence against women in cities and to add to the conversation.
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URB.im is the global online network “for just and inclusive cities,” connects practitioners, urban planners and policy makers in the Global South to establish an international community of practice. They share best practices to scale working solutions to the problem of urban poverty. An initiative of the Ford Foundation, it is managed by San Francisco-based Dallant Networks and currently covers ten cities: Mumbai, Bangalore, Jakarta, Dhaka, Cairo, Lagos, Nairobi, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.