Women’s Safety: Women to Live Free From Violence and Fear?

By Geeta Seshu, Womens Feature Service

Barely a day before the shocking rape of a woman BPO employee in a moving tempo in the country’s national capital was reported, more than 270 participants from 41 countries adopted a declaration at the concluding session of the Third International Conference On Safe Cities For Women And Girls in New Delhi, that asserted the right of all women to live free from violence and fear, in more equitable, democratic and inclusive cities.

It noted that ‘The safety of women in urban areas is welded to a truly inclusive city that affirms the special needs of all citizens, especially those who are disabled, poor or belong to different ethnicities and participatory decision-making that involves strong partnerships between civil society organisations, governments and urban local authorities, law-enforcing agencies is the need of the hour.’ Endorsing this declaration, senior Supreme Court lawyer and Additional Solicitor-General of India Indira Jaising said that the partnership that was a dominant theme of the three-day conference must be a true partnership of values between equal partners. “The violence that often defines women in society has reached endemic proportions, becoming ordinary instead of extraordinary. Women and children often give up on the right to education or a livelihood as a trade-off for safety,” she added.

A safe city is a 24-hour city, encouraging street life to flourish, hawkers plazas and people’s cooperatives, not a city like New Delhi, Jaising said, which has been built on the principle of ‘beautification’.

The conference was jointly organised by the New Delhi-based women’s organisation Jagori and the Montreal (Canada)-based Women in Cities International (WICI) along with several international organisations that work on urban safety and planning, including the Red Mujer y Habitat de America Latina, the Huairou Commission, the United National Development Fund for Women and the United National Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat).

The envisioning of a ‘safe city’ created by a partnership between administrative authorities and civil society was the undercurrent of the meet, with concurrent sessions on diverse themes such as gender and essential services for low-income communities, local policies and programmes for improving women’s safety, fighting displacement, migration, transportation and security, urban planning and design, the economics of safe cities for women, gender-based armed violence and demands for small arms by citizens in urban areas.

In cities all over the world, women and girls face the threat of sexual harassment and violence in public spaces, states a 2006 report of the State of the World’s Cities (UN-Habitat). More recently, in New Delhi, a 2010 study by Jagori has revealed that a rape was reported every 29 minutes and as many as 82 per cent women reported that buses were the most unsafe places in the city. Women in other countries too have reported similar experiences – on the streets in Cairo, Egypt, at least 83 per cent of women experienced sexual harassment, while in Sao Paolo, Brazil, a woman was assaulted every 15 seconds!

The statistics are endless, presenting a grim picture of sexual harassment, assault and abuse in cities across the world. “Today, it really feels like a movement for safe cities,” says Marisa Canuto, Executive Director of WICI. The organisation spearheaded the first international conference in 2002 in Montreal, and the second in Bogota, Colombia, in 2004.

The Delhi Declaration on Women’s Safety stressed the need to promote awareness on safety, for women’s safety tools, the use of technology to network and generate collective ideas and strategies, strengthen links between local authorities and grassroots women’s organisations and it called upon governments at the national and local levels, international agencies of the UN and other non-governmental organisations to join hands.

“Of course, there is a continuum of violence on the streets and at home and we have to go to the root cause of this,” Canuto emphasised. Recalling the initial efforts to get the campaign going, she said, “It was difficult to get women to get together to discuss the issue of violence. In some cities, women would be reluctant to discuss domestic violence but would be willing to come for a meeting to discuss violence in public spaces. So that’s what we did, we organised these meetings and brought women out.”

From those early days, today, the voices demanding safety for women in urban spaces have only grown louder. And the Delhi Declaration was a major step towards making the issue of safer urban areas a movement, felt Suneeta Dhar, Director of Jagori. The fact that it was such a pressing issue was also indicative from the response of women’s organisations as well as academics and representatives of law-enforcing agencies and civic administration from diverse countries including India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Nepal, Canada, Kenya, Nigeria and Indonesia.

The last two international conferences laid the ground-work for collaborative partnerships to reduce violence against women and girls. Gender auditing and a women’s safety audit was a significant tool devised to monitor the level of safety in any community or city. The Jagori study has become a bench-mark for assessing the precarious sense of security experienced by women in Delhi, informed Kalpana Vishwanath, who is project director of the Gender Inclusive Cities project run by Jagori and WICI. The most important aspect that the Jagori study has reflected is that 40 per cent of the women who had experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces reported it. The breaking of their silence on the issue is a major step forward, said Rajiv Kale, Director of the Department Of Women And Child Development of the Delhi government.

The conference also saw the launch of a five-city programme by UNIFEM for the ‘Safe Cities Free of Violence Against Women and Girls’, which New Delhi, Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea, Pacific), Cairo (Egypt, Northern Africa), Kigali (Rwanda, Sub-Sahara Africa) and Quito (Ecuador, Latin America) will be part of. Ines Alberdi, the executive director of UNIFEM, said that the programme will develop a model on how to prevent and reduce violence against women and girls in public spaces in these five pilot cities that can be adapted by cities around the world.

An unprecedented 3.4 billion people now live in cities worldwide. Crime rates are high, but municipal development and safety plans frequently overlook specific threats to women and girls. Just last week yet another woman working in Delhi was gang raped in the early hours of the morning, as she was returning from work. Zero tolerance for violence against women – that’s the need of the hour.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.