By Geeta Seshu, Womens Feature Service
At the crux of the issue of safety for women and children, Dr. Preggs Govender, deputy chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, stressed the need to look at inclusive cities within inclusive countries in an inclusive world.
“The inclusive city was a building block for an inclusive country and an inclusive world. Otherwise, it will fall into an agenda of an exploitative world, with the terms of urbanisation set by those who own land,” she said during the Third International Safe Cities Conference held recently in New Delhi, India.
Indeed, the lack of safe public utilities such as public toilets and transport was a running thread throughout the three-day conference. There were 270 participants from 41 countries who attended the conference.
Increasing urbanization and spatial segregation is on the rise. Women make up a growing proportion of the over 175 million international migrants worldwide and participants from 61 cities as seemingly diverse. Countries like Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), Cairo (Egypt), Kigali (Rwanda), Paris (France), Quito (Ecuador), Tokyo (Japan) and Sydney (Australia), affirmed the need for women to be part of a decision-making process that would respond to their needs.
The conference was organised jointly by the Montreal (Canada)-based Women in Cities International (WICI) and New Delhi (India)-based Jagori, along with Huairou Commission, UN Women, UN Habitat and Red Mujer y Habitat America Latina.
The Delhi declaration, that emerged at the end of the deliberations, is “a major step forward in affirming the need to forge partnerships with governments and administrations of urban bodies, UN agencies, community organisations, academics and the private sector to ensure the safety of women,” said Kathryn Travers, senior analyst of WICI.
Building such a partnership has become absolutely imperative. With more than 3.4 billion people in the world now living in cities, the safety of half this population is at a precarious state. And there’s plenty of evidence of this.
Sexual harassment and street violence is at a high – 35-60 per cent of women surveyed in an International Violence against Women survey said they experienced physical or sexual violence by any man since age 16 and while a major proportion of this would be by an intimate partner, the assault by other men is on the rise.
The growing unease among women is not surprising considering that their safety is further compromised by the very people assigned to protect them.
Echoing this, Axumite Gebre-Egziabher, Director, Global Division of UN-Habitat said that where women are part of an urban design process, the results clearly show that they give priority to safety, ease of movement and equitable access of all facilities.
As cities expanded, they failed to develop any capacities to deal with the expansion of their population, said Patricia Morey, director of the women and gender programme of the University of Cordoba, Argentina.
The conference discussed a plethora of issues related to women’s safety. In a session on migration, Holly Kearle, programme manager of the American Association of University Women, USA, asked whether the segregation of women in public transport was a desirable trend. She said that while it may provide temporary relief it didn’t stop men from harassing women at bus stops.
In the final analysis, the safe cities movement must look at the continuum of violence whether political or domestic. The women’s movement has always been talking of violence and raising a voice against it in the private domain. But it is now that the discourse has begun assertively claiming safety in public spaces too.