From the streets of Manhattan to those in Madurai, India, and Kisumu, Kenya, women and girls living in cities face many of the same threats to their physical safety and wellbeing. Crowded and unpatrolled public transport, dark and narrow streets, public toilets that for many women substitute for indoor plumbing, parking lots that are a minefield of dark hiding places for rapists – all these pose dangers to millions of women worldwide, every day.
CitiesforWomen where city officials and urban planners take into account the role of urban infrastructure in creating safe spaces for women and girls. Creating safer cities isn’t just a nice thing to do: it’s a necessity for any urban leaders counting on a productive workforce capable of generating general prosperity.
“Today, in 2018, we have a strong body of evidence that shows that women’s participation in the economy is critical because when women are able to fulfill their economic potential, GDP goes up and poverty goes down,” says Rachel Vogelstein, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, referring to gross domestic product in an interview with U.S. News and World Report. A city that makes it hard and dangerous for 50 percent of its workforce – women and girls – to navigate from home to work or school is leaving both human rights and cold hard cash on the table.
WomenStrong sat down last month with leaders of our Consortium Member sites in Ghana , Kenya , Haiti , and India for a virtual roundtable on the role of urban infrastructure in violence against women. Overall, we found that roughly a third of all the women and girls we serve had experienced some form of sexual harassment, abuse, or violence, including beatings and rape. We talked about the greatest dangers, as well as ways in which women could be made to feel safer in their own hometowns.
If you had to rank the things that frighten most women and girls the most, what are the top 3 things?
Beldina Opiyo, Executive Director of Alice Visionary Foundation Project in Kisumu, Kenya: For girls 18 years old and older, employment age, they face the possibility of having to offer sexual favors to get jobs. Some of my staff tell me this was their own experience. Even lecturers in schools ask girls for sex, to give them good grades. It’s done quietly, but it’s done all the time. For older women living in informal settlements, these are women of lower status, they fear rape, being groped in public by husbands and boyfriends, person violence that is due to poverty.
Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng, Executive Director, Women’s Health to Wealth, Kumasi, Ghana: Women themselves are driving some of this violence. If you look at surveys from between 2008 and 2014, you see a high percentage of women, about one-third, who agree that it is okay to be beaten, even for things as trivial as being late with a meal. They think it’s okay. Also, for most women, the gender rules make it difficult for women to understand that what they’re going through is abuse. Tradition dictates that women should be quiet, submissive, not complain.
For a lot of things, women will just say, “Oh, there they go again.” Educated women want to change the traditional norms, because when you’re educated, you realize that things accepted as traditional are actually forms of abuse.
In terms of the urban environment, where are the scariest places?
Ahila Devi, WomenStrong Program Lead, DHAN Foundation, Madurai, India: Public transport is always very dangerous, [like in the] auto rickshaws at night. Also, it is dangerous to walk alone in the street with no lights. There are many dark streets that are dead-ends and lead nowhere in poor neighborhoods. These are very dangerous.
Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng: Women who work in the markets are afraid of the commercial areas around the markets, lorry (truck) parks and parts of the city known for having hardcore men. These are no-go areas for women.
It is in these lorry parks that women find public transport, which they rely on for the merchandise they sell. A lot of our women are traders and must go through alleys to get to the lorry parks, where women are raped, robbed, and harassed. They normally load and unload their merchandise close to the market, early in the morning, often before light, and this tends to be quite risky. The drivers are all men, and they take advantage of the women. For instance, women who buy perishables to sell, like vegetables, find that the drivers demand sexual favors. If a woman doesn’t cooperate, she’ll start receiving goods that are rotten, and her business is ruined. Around the same lorry park, with the high concentration of men, there are a lot of bars, a lot of drugs, men then do undesirable things to women, touching them, and anything can happen. And the women must pass through this to make a living, to feed their children and families.
Also, the railway terminal and the communal bathrooms there, and the alleyways in the center of town that are narrow, not well lit, frequented by young men and linked to lorry parks.
In fact, in the city, there are certain areas that are no-go after 6 p.m. No woman or girl in her right mind would pass through those places. Women who want to attend church in the evening can only go in a big group. Most women stay home and don’t stray too far from where they live.
Women also are afraid of using public latrines, which in poor communities may be the only ones available, because houses do not have inside toilets.
Beldina Opiyo: The informal settlement is not safe — it is not well lit at night. The streets are narrow and inaccessible, so if you need help, or an ambulance, they can’t get to you. The issue of lighting is a big thing, and so is safe public transportation at night. Women and girls sometimes are forced to use bike taxi guys, but these can be dangerous. The taxi guy may rape you, steal from you, beat you up.
Schools require kids to go at 6 a.m., which means girls are walking dark streets before dawn. That’s how some girls are raped or groped by bicycle taxi drivers, on their way to school.
In the schools themselves, most schools do not have enough toilets for girls, and they don’t separate them from the boys’. That affects whether girls can use them. Toilets, in general, are a big safety problem. In the informal settlements, many people use pit latrines, which are outside the house. If you’re sharing a latrine, it is very risky for women and girls to go to the toilets at night. Latrines may be shared by five houses, and there is no way to know who may be hiding in wait. Attacks occur in dark alleys, or in the back of a small shop, behind schools, A young girl sent to buy something at a small kiosk near her home can be grabbed and raped just a very short way from her own door. Even when they are at home in the informal settlements, girls are not safe. Their mothers sell things in the market until 8 or 9 p.m., when customers are out shopping after work, after dark. Girls are alone at home, behind doors with no locks or flimsy locks. They’re also in danger.
What concrete steps could cities take to improve safety?
Rose-Marie Chierici, Executive Director, H.O.P.E., Borgne, Haiti: People ask for streetlights. If there are streetlights, then nothing will happen there. Borgne has just a couple of lights in front of the church, but no streetlights. After the sun goes down, you have little fires along the road where people are cooking, and there are lanterns. Women do sit outside, but they stay home and sit on their verandas without venturing out.
Ahila Devi: Here in Madurai, there are four things that need to be done:
– Ensure lighting in pathways to hamlets and in neighborhoods
– Set up CCTV monitoring in problem places
– Place police outposts in problem places, using police patrols at nights and at peak hours
– Establish safety awareness education classes at schools.
Beldina Opiyo: Improve lighting. Informal settlements have put up security lighting, but they can’t keep up with the electric bills. The city could help with the costs. When the lights work, people are less afraid. City officials could help create more jobs for young people. Unemployment here is higher than the national average, and boys who are not working are out on the street causing trouble, verbally harassing or even raping girls. We also need more awareness campaigns on sexual harassment; that would help. The girls in our Girls’ Clubs know about their rights and are less afraid. Public awareness campaigns to educate young girls would help, things like
MeToo in the United States.
Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng: Lighting is first. Followed by the city helping individual residences build indoor toilets. That’s the other thing that opens these girls and women to violence, especially in the evening. Toilets are very dangerous places. Those who won’t go to toilets at night go in a bag, and then we wind up with parcels of feces all around that pose a health hazard. But it happens because they’re scared. It’s a choice between being raped or physically assaulted, or throwing feces out in a bag. They think the second option is better, but it’s a terrible choice.
Is there something that women and girls could do themselves to improve safety?
Ahila Devi: Girls in our Girls’ Clubs have proposed self-defense classes. We need to increase awareness on violence, on good touching versus bad touching. We need to help our women have the confidence and courage to confront bad or violent behavior and encourage them to share their experiences with their families, or with police and legal counsel, if there is a serious threat or abuse.
Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng: Yes, awareness is important. There are women who think violence against women is normal. But when you talk them through it, they understand and think, “No, it’s not right.” A lot of our women must be sensitized through education, with materials, posters, handbills — small messages that can be posted everywhere to help the women understand.
Another thing we can do is to encourage women to campaign – to demand change themselves. Women have to speak for themselves, but they need an arsenal of support to do it. They need education. They have to learn how to navigate the local government system, to get justice and the change they want. They need to understand their rights, to be trained in the knowledge and skills that will enable them to make their case through the right government channels. They also need access to materials and groups, like women lawyers, who can help them navigate and create a movement to solve their problems.
Beldina Opiyo: Most women here have not heard of the