How to make cities safer for girls

A street in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by: Justin Raycraft / CC BY

BRUSSELS — Indifferent police, oblivious politicians, unsuitable infrastructure, and nonexistent harassment laws are all obstacles facing girls and young women in cities today. But the “Unsafe In The City” report, released Thursday by Plan International to mark International Day of the Girl Child, also argues this insecurity “cannot simply be blamed on a lack of security and lighting.”

“The underlying cause of many girls’ and young women’s feeling of insecurity is male behavior,” according to the study, which draws on experiences in 21,200 locations across Lima, Kampala, Sydney, Madrid, and Delhi. Participants with an average age of 21 volunteered or were recruited in April and May 2018 to drop a pin whenever they felt safe or unsafe and explain why. The bad pins far outnumber the good. And in every city except Kampala, a majority felt they were targeted because they were young and female, including 78 percent of participants who cited gender discrimination in Delhi.

“One night I was waiting for a friend to come [when] a man who was constantly prowling around suddenly stood between two cars looking at me and started to masturbate,” a 25-year-old woman from Madrid recalled. “I started shouting at him that I was going to call the police and he left running. Five minutes later, I passed a police car, told them what had happened to me and the policeman started to flirt with me.”

Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen told Devex that employing more female police officers would help, but “the reality is most police forces today really don’t care. And they will only care once city authorities and politicians start caring. I think that’s where we have to start.”

Bogotá, Johannesburg, among most dangerous cities for girls, report finds

Surveyed experts across 22 cities all found sexual harassment is a common and serious concern, according to Plan International.

The report, which follows a recent survey of experts on the same topic, recorded 2,855 cases of verbal sexual harassment only, 562 cases of physical harassment only, and 847 cases involving both. These attacks also hurt development objectives. In Lima, 33 participants said they stopped going to school, work, or college due to experiences of abuse and harassment.

For Albrectsen, approaches such as women-only train carriages can only be “transitional solutions.”

“You’ve got to address what seems to feel like men’s license to behave in the way that they do, and the only way to do that is to tackle [it] from childhood, through education, what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “This is not talked about in school. A part of your general education isn’t ‘oh, and by the way, don’t catcall, don’t grope girls, etc.’ We’re saying, if a mayor wanted to do something, [they should] go on a public campaign, in the city space, but also in schools.”

In Buenos Aires and Barcelona, municipalities are offering workshops with NGOs and community groups to primary schools that are willing to participate, designed to teach mostly boys about anger control. Luis Alvarado, who oversees the work through the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, said the workshops focus on: “How do I identify my emotions, how do I react, what does this mean, what is OK, where are the red lines, what is not OK, how should I react if I see something happening to another boy or girl?”  

Similarly, Plan’s Champions of Change project focuses on 15-18-year-olds. In discussions of what they’d like masculinity to look like, Albrectsen said, “what we typically find is that young men feel incredibly burdened by the macho image they are supposed to live up to. As soon as they are able to articulate that they don’t want to be that kind of man … then they can take on a bit more of an activist role to gender norms. That means nondiscrimination against girls, but also changing the male norms.”  

Aside from changing men’s behavior, Plan is also calling for the criminalization of all forms of gender-based violence. Albrectsen said a French law introduced this year that imposes fines for harassing women on the street should “definitely” be adopted elsewhere.

The NGO’s third recommendation, for greater involvement of young women and girls in decision-making, was echoed by Alvarado. “That’s the step at which most governments, for now, have failed,” he said.

“Having women and even young girls at the table and able to input in the political processes is the way to start.”

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About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.