Voices & Views

Building Safer and More Inclusive Cities for Women

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A refuge for women in Kenya’s Langas slum in Eldoret decided it needed to provide more than shelter and healthcare for victims of sexual and other violence. So SlovakAid helped set up the St Vincent de Paul vocational training centre for single mothers. They studied hairdressing and dressmaking, as well as basic computer skills to allow them to type up their CVs and search for jobs on the Internet. 

One woman graduated within three months, was given seed money of about 100 euros, and set up her own hair salon. Six months later she started taking on other women from the training centre. 

“Suddenly she became an employer and she was an owner of a larger salon with several women employed there,” said Michal Mlynár, Director General for International Organisations & Development Cooperation in Slovakia’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. “It shows how a small thing can develop into something really meaningful.”

The example illustrates the traps and opportunities for poor women in big cities. Until recently, gender inequality was seen primarily as a problem for rural areas. But as cities grow rapidly in developing countries, the rights and protection of urban women have become a focus of increasing concern for NGOs and development organisations.

Though cities are sources of jobs and economic growth, they are also full of hazards, especially for women. More than half of many major African and Asian cities are slums, according to Cities Alliance, with limited sanitation, educational opportunities or protection against violence. 

“Many women have little education and are not aware of their rights,” said Lynette Injette, Country Director for Kenya of Habitat for Humanity International. “We need programmes that enable women to engage and participate at even the lowest level, so that they understand their rights to property and how to engage and make decisions, from community to national level.”

City hazards can start with planning. If a woman wants to work, she might have to return home late at night. But if there’s no street lighting and safe pedestrian access, she might decide it’s dangerous to take a job.  

“If you want to reach gender equality, you need to provide women with a safe and secure environment,” said Abbas Sbeity, founder of the Lebanese Architecture Club. “These types of things sound very small and detailed and you don’t usually think about them. But they have a big impact on women and their role in society.”

One neighbourhood in Beirut called Karantina is hemmed in by a river, a highway and the sea, and is also dotted with military checkpoints, Sbeity said. The most direct route to the city centre takes you across the highway. There is a bridge, but not everyone is able to climb it. The alternatives are “not safe and you don’t feel secure,” he said. “The most vulnerable people, and those most affected by urban poverty, are women. They need access to the city, because that’s where all the services are.”

So far, much of the study of women’s safety has focussed on topics such as domestic violence, and relatively little is known about dangers to women in public spaces, said Anu Ramaswami, Director of Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and a professor at the University of Minnesota. Now, efforts are increasing to figure out what makes certain areas feel insecure. For example, she said, women will cross the street if one side has certain types of shops or businesses – from liquor stores to more off-putting establishments. 

“Cities are not gender-neutral,” Ramaswami said. “We should think about how planners can help from a gender perspective and make sure that social services – the police, the judiciary, hospitals – are engineered while taking gender issues into account.”

One contribution she cited is in India, where a series of violent attacks on women have made women fear for their safety, especially on buses. A new app called Safetipin allows women to grade different neighbourhoods on a range of factors, including lighting, transport links and how safe if feels.

The app shows a safety audit score as a “pin” on a map – the first reason for the name. Another is that Indian women have traditionally used a jab with a safety pin to ward off unwelcome approaches. A third reason is that a safety pin holds fabric together – and the organisers hope SafetiPin could help hold together the fabric of society. Women can also use the app to let friends know their location through their smartphone’s GPS. 

Local customs are a big source of vulnerability for women. From an early age, girls tend to get fewer educational opportunities than boys: If a mother has to make a choice, she will normally keep a daughter at home to help with household chores and send a son to school. “By the time she becomes a woman, she is not educated to be able to compete with others,” said Injette. “That lack of empowerment or the skills to make them feel like they can really fight for their rights means they end up not being able to participate politically.”

Women are still highly dependent on husbands for their position in society. A divorced woman is looked at by society as an outcast, said Injette. And women whose husbands die often end up homeless. Though couples often buy a property or piece of land together, it is almost always registered under the man’s name: Currently only 3% of Kenyan women own title deeds, and women don’t know their right to remain in the house after their husbands die. “When their husband dies they [are] thrown out of homes by their relatives,” said Injette. “That is mainly because the women do not understand their rights – not because the law is not there, but because it is not enforced.”

The best solution is to organise pro bono legal services to help these women – and to form educational groups so that they learn what to do. “Women are very good when they come together, form groups and learn about their rights,” said Injette.

For more information you can visit the capacity4dev.eu Public Groups on Urban Development and Gender.

Further reading

On women:

On cities: 

European Development Days (EDDs):

All these interviews took place during the EDDs. The interviewees spook on the following panels:

 

This collaborative piece was drafted by Sebastian Moffett with input from Mathieu Daloze from DEVCO and support from the capacity4dev.eu Coordination Team. Photo © UNICEF/Belize/2014/Caroline Bach

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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