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Women's rights

Smart Cities? Not for women

26 January Jan 2016 1133 26 January 2016
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For women, walking on city streets is often a fraught process: from the ripple of apprehension when someone physically stronger approaches, to the general avoidance of walking alone in the dark, and the constant need to stay alert and watchful. These are familiar experiences for women globally, and with increased urbanisation, violence against women in our cities is becoming endemic.

“Sometimes I have to wake up and leave home as early as 3 and 4am for work, to deliver goods for sale that will be taken by truck drivers to other towns or the countryside...I’m afraid of the risks of rape and robbery when I leave home at this hour." This is the testimony from a street vendor in Ethiopia.

“The violence has no time or day...”, says another woman from the Brazilian city of Mirandiba.

These are just a few of the testimonies outlined in the Action Aid report for their ongoing campaign Safe Cities for Women, which aims to end violence against women in public spaces. With 2015 being hailed a “landmark year” for feminism and women’s rights, and the publication of the UN progress report for women 2015-2016, the spotlight is firmly set on advancing women’s rights for 2016 too.

By now, over 3.3 billion of us live in cities. Each year, 65 million more of us move from rural to urban dwellings. Our cities are booming, and urbanisation is rife. With this trend, “sexual harassment of women in public places seems to have spread like an epidemic,” according to Sultana Kamal, a human rights activist from Bangladesh.

We are still at a point where women across the world are in fear for their lives when they leave their houses. When they go on the street, they enter a space that is supposed to be public and free. But in fact, the streets remain patriarchal spaces controlled by invisible power dynamics that threaten sexual violence.

ActionAid challenges the central idea that urbanisation is a ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’. Instead we want to highlight that rising urban poverty and male dominant and controlling attitudes towards women, which pervade all levels of society, are feeding rising levels of sexual violence and a culture of fear in cities and urban spaces.

Action Aid Report, Safe Cities for Women

So how to tackle this?

Apart from appealing to changes in legislation, where “governments and parliaments need to legislate for violence against women and girls in public spaces. Offences such as sexual harassment, unwanted touching, eve teasing, stalking, etc. in public spaces should be recognised in national legislation,” the Safe Cities campaign also highlights the importance of gender-sensitive urban planning.

Much like politics, urban planning is still a very male-dominated field, and the needs of women are often ignored. Practically, gender sensitive urban planning means - amongst other things - reducing areas with poor lighting, dark streets, and dangerous public transport systems.

According to UN-Habitat’s Under-Secretary-General Joan Clos, “the effect of urban planning on people’s lives, well being and quality of life is not sufficiently recognized by the majority in the women’s movement. The link between urban planning, poverty reduction, economic empowerment of women, and ending violence against women is hardly understood by the drivers of gender equality and empowerment of women at local, national, regional and international levels.”

Sexual harassment of women in public places seems to have spread like an epidemic

Sultana Kamal, Bangladeshi human rights activist

Women across the world need to work together to make the vision of a safe city become a reality. Making our streets safe and equal spaces for women will bring us one step closer to making our world a safe and equal place.

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