In today’s world, girls are always at risk. But poor urban girls endure special stresses and challenges that can impede their chances of achieving their full potential.
These challenges include long journeys just to get to school, through unsafe streets or on broken public transport, and demanding household chores that may include caring for younger siblings or the elderly, gathering water or wood, and nighttime errands that take them back out onto dark, unlit streets.
Challenges also include the lack of adequate green space in which to play and relax, and the lack of access to quality schools, quality health care, and a caring teacher or mentor, meaning they may miss out on important guidance from those who can help them turn their dreams into reality.
Without that guidance, given these obstacles, life can easily get in the way of ever realizing those dreams.
Violence against girls is more likely in poor neighborhoods, long since abandoned by responsible law enforcement. Everything from rape/murder, to sexual or physical assault, to harassment or bullying in the street, at school, or at home is common, whether in Lahore, Lima, or Washington, DC. And sometimes, when a girl stands up for herself, she can be beaten down, or worse.
What’s true for girls is true for everyone: we all deserve safe streets and infrastructure, green space, and the right to live free of violence, harassment, and bullying. But the physical and psychic fragility of developing young women raises special alarms. Once we understand what they need to feel safe, there are steps we can take, to make our cities safe for girls, and for all of us.
A good first step is to ask them what they need! Small groups of parents, teachers, community members, public policymakers, city planners, and members of law enforcement can sit down with girls from vulnerable communities in appropriate settings and listen to them speak about the neighborhoods they consider unsafe and what will help them feel at home in their city. Mothers, too, must have a voice; many of them were once poor girls in this city, and all of them know what risks they and their families face on a daily basis, just getting around town.
Then, we need to press our public officials to finally put in place the urban infrastructure that these girls and their mothers say will help make the city feel safe. This may include installing and/or ensuring well-lit streets, hygienic public toilets, functioning public transport operated by staff trained to protect all passengers, safe pedestrian overpasses, and public parks. We need to be prepared, though: politicians have legions of excuses to draw on, from budget shortfalls to higher-priority items to forthcoming elections, as to why they really do hear you, but they can’t move forward on your excellent ideas just now.
Even without waiting for politicians, we can create a culture of caring ourselves. We can begin by being good neighbors, paying attention to whoever lives beside and behind us, noticing when we’ve not seen a member of their household for a while, making sure to check in every so often and to find out whether everyone is ok.
In this way, we begin to build a safe, resourceful, and resilient community. We share the same need for and vision of a safe city, after all! So should those public officials not come through, we can reach out to those neighbors with whom we’ve become acquainted, ask them in turn to reach out to their neighbors and acquaintances, and bring them together, in greater strength this time, to discuss our girls’ needs and vision and ours, and to devise a community-driven solution.
Once we have a well-conceived plan, we can go back to those same public officials and show them what we’ve come up with: if they’re at all accountable to their constituents, it’s their job to respond and to try to find the funds for implementation. Where any of us has capacity to contribute, we can offer our services, accelerating the process in whatever ways we can.
Such community-building endeavors, with everyone giving of herself as is possible, really do help make cities safe. In post-genocide Rwanda, President Paul Kagame instituted obligatory Saturday morning clean-ups each month as one way of recreating the notion of responsibility to the larger community, rather than to one’s tribe. In a remote, low-income neighborhood of Curridabat, Costa Rica, where the mostly young single mothers were concerned about their children traversing gang-infested streets en route to school, their mayor invited WomenStrong partner Asia Initiatives to help the mothers establish a “social capital credits” program whereby they could earn desired goods or services by keeping vigil as their children made their way safely to school and back. And in impoverished urban communities from Freetown to Cairo, the international non-profit Population Council enables at-risk girls to lead by helping them map their community assets, so they will know the pathways and area resources they can rely on, when in trouble or simply getting from place to place, and so they can inform public officials of what’s needed and where their individual responsibilities lie.
This is doable, people. Girls in cities, like everyone in cities, should not have to live in fear. We are the ones best equipped and empowered to learn what they need, to make their needs clear to those with the power to meet them, and then to assert our own power, doing what we can to pitch in and build our own resourceful, resilient, and safe urban community.
What are we waiting for?