Richard Threlfall, Global Head of Infrastructure, KPMG International
Kathryn Travers, Former Executive Director, Women in Cities International
Laura Capobianco, Policy Advisor Safe Public Spaces and UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces, Global Flagship Initiative
There is a growing gender gap across the world that must be addressed
And that means it has largely been designed from a man's perspective. There is nothing natural about it and it is not intentional. But it does contribute to reproducing social inequalities and stereotypes. There is a growing gender gap across the world that must be addressed - including in emerging market cities - and the infrastructure sector will need to play a key role.
Women do not feel safe in their cities. Research from the US shows that around two-thirds of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces in their lifetime.1 More than half of women in Guatemala City say they feel unsafe walking alone in public spaces during the day.2 The way infrastructure is planned and maintained has a lot to do with that.
Indeed, poorly planned infrastructure can actually create opportunities for violence against women and has a direct impact on whether a woman or girl feels safe in their surroundings. It’s not just about installing good lighting and removing dilapidated buildings; women and girls often cite things like uneven pathways, a lack of visible sightlines in parks and alleyways, and poorly maintained public spaces like parking lots and public toilets as elements that signal the space may not be safe for them.3
The challenge is particularly acute in the growing cities of the emerging markets. Rapid (and often unregulated) development and expansion has created some chaotic and unsafe environments. In those places where planning is rigorous, decision-makers are often more focused on achieving the lowest cost than addressing the gender gap. Existing assets are operating beyond capacity and that is creating street-level competition for public services; women and girls are often left behind.
Ensuring women and girls feel safe in their cities is not a trivial thing. The experience and fear of harassment and violence may influence a women's choices on where or when they work. It could affect their access to employment, education, recreation and cause them to alter their travel routes through a city. It might impact their choice of transportation. It could also limit a woman's access to critical city services such as housing, sanitation, legal and support services.
“Creating safe cities is about strengthening women's empowerment, giving her choices and reducing her risk of all forms of violence,” noted Laura Capobianco, a Policy Advisor on Safe Public Spaces and UN Women's Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Flagship Initiative. “It requires comprehensive infrastructure interventions - both in terms of hard infrastructure such as roads, markets, public toilets and lighting, as well as soft infrastructure like vocational skills training and services related to economic, health, culture and social development.”
If unlocking city infrastructure and services for half a city’s population wasn’t enough of an incentive, there are also good economic and policy reasons to focus on safe cities. According to recent studies, violence against women reduces global GDP by 2 percentage points (or around US$1.5 trillion4) per year; creating safer spaces could catalyze a boom in sustainable growth in cities.
Policy leaders will also recognize that creating safe cities is key to achieving many of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Goal 4 on education, Goal 5 on gender equality, Goal 11 on inclusive cities and Goal 16 on peace and justice. All countries and stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnerships, will implement the SDGs and governments will report on meeting targets related to the safety of women and girls in cities and other settings.
It’s not just about installing good lighting and removing dilapidated buildings; women and girls often cite things like uneven pathways, a lack of visible sightlines in parks and alleyways, and poorly maintained public spaces like parking lots and public toilets as elements that signal the space may not be safe for them.
Making it real
At UN Women, Laura Capobianco and UN safe city country teams in many countries have been talking to cities and infrastructure leaders about the need for `gender responsive' urban planning and infrastructure.
“This is simply about creating the space to ensure different voices are embedded into the planning process,” adds Laura. “The aim of gender responsive planning is to encourage decision-makers across all policy areas to ensure that the needs and concerns of all women and girls are considered at all phases of a planning process - from inception, planning and design through to implementation, operation and monitoring.”
The Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls Global Flagship Initiative was created to help city leaders develop and implement tools, policies and approaches designed to assist in the prevention of sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women and girls in public spaces across different settings.
The first five cities selected to participate in the Global Flagship were Quito, Ecuador; Cairo, Egypt; New Delhi, India; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; and Kigali, Rwanda; more than 40 cities have participated to date. Tactics and strategies for making infrastructure more gender responsive is often high on the agenda.
Embedding women's and girls' voices into the infrastructure planning process doesn't have to be difficult. In fact, one of the more common approaches involves what's called a 'women's safety audit'.
“Women's safety audits are a practical, easy-to-use tool that can help ensure women and girls' voices are included in the urban planning process,” noted Kathryn Travers, former Executive Director of Women in Cities International, an NGO focused on encouraging the participation of women in urban development and a global safe cities partner to UN Women. “They allow women to engage with their built environment in a way that speaks to urban planners without requiring them to have any formal training.”
In a women's safety audit, local women and girls (as well as NGO leaders and community leaders) use a checklist to evaluate specific elements in the built and social environments of a particular space. They are encouraged to note anything that hinders or strengthens their sense of safety in that place and to make recommendations for change.
“Women’s safety audits recognize the ‘lived experiences’ of women and girls in the spaces they use regularly; it allows women who use a space to influence the safety of that space,” noted Travers.
Much can be done in partnership to build on positive results5 and to ensure that monitoring continues to progress across the world, including in many emerging market cities. “Strong political will is key to strengthening and sustaining action in cities,” added Capobianco. “More and more governments today are taking or recognizing the importance of developing an integrated approach that focuses on economic empowerment, increasing political participation of women and youth, and ending violence against women and girls.”
However, it is clear that much more needs to be done. And that will require sustained, coordinated action on the part of policy makers, infrastructure providers, community groups, and other civil society organizations.
“Each partner can work within their area of influence to help step up action on gender equality and safety in cities,” adds Laura. “This is our opportunity to collectively build and scale up safe and sustainable city approaches that allow all women and girls to achieve their full potential and achieve full participation”. It's an opportunity not to be squandered.
- Stop street harassment (2018) The Facts Behind the #MeToo Movement: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault. Unites States.
- Women in Guatemala steer change, seek solutions to end sexual harassment in public spaces
- UN Women (2019) Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls Global Flagship Initiative: International Compendium of Practices. New York: UN Women
- Cited in UN Women (2016)
Women’s safety audits are a practical, easy-to-use tool that can help ensure women’s and girls’ voices are included in the urban planning process.