Opinion: Cities for women’s rights and gender equality

Women and children riding the Lahore bus rapid transit service. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are a global pandemic with a severe impact on the lives of women and girls everywhere. This growing phenomenon exists in both developed and developing countries, in urban, rural, and in conflict as well as post-conflict settings. Studies conducted in recent years in cities such as Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and Mexico City indicate that the majority of women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their daily commute, while in Kigali, Rwanda, 55 percent of women reported being afraid of attending schools after dark.

Sexual harassment violates many rights of women and girls — to live free from fear and violence, to exercise autonomous mobility, and to participate in school, work, recreation and in public life. It also impedes women from their full development and empowerment in society, yet at the same time it remains a largely neglected area in policy and practice.

“The intrinsic links between gender equality and urban development are more evident today than ever before. Cities have positioned themselves as the natural ecosystem for the realization of gender equality.”

— Lakshmi Puri, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of U.N. Women

While the situation remains critical, the international community is taking bold action for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted unanimously by all United Nations member states in 2015. The agenda calls for gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, including to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres. It also focuses on making urban areas inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, and requires cities to provide universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces — in particular for women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities.

In addition, the New Urban Agenda adopted by U.N. member states in October 2016 commits to guarantee a safe, healthy, inclusive, and secure environment in cities and human settlements for all. It also pledges to work toward the elimination of harmful practices against women and girls, including child, early, and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

The intrinsic links between gender equality and urban development are more evident today than ever before. Cities have positioned themselves as the natural ecosystem for the realization of gender equality. Creating that environment requires comprehensive laws and policies that eliminate violence and discrimination everywhere; and forging urban gender-responsive planning and investment in improvements that have the potential to make differences in women’s lives — and livelihoods.

It is about ensuring gender-responsiveness in the provision of both public and private essential services. It is about rethinking the layout of cities to reduce time burden and multiply the opportunities for the full realization of women’s and girls’ human rights and fundamental freedoms. And it is also about promoting everyone’s accountability to achieve gender equality, including national and local governments and all other stakeholders in society.

Sharing lessons on the right to the city

Mexico City hosted the Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Biennial Forum last month, bringing together more than 200 delegates from over 20 countries, including national and local government and representatives of civil society, community-based grassroots women’s organizations, youth organizations, private sector, academia, international organizations, and the media. Participants exchanged ideas, good practices and lessons learned from implementing women’s safety initiatives in cities. The forum took place at a key turning point in Mexico City’s history, with its first constitution about to enter into force, firmly establishing the principles of gender equality and the right to the city for all.

The forum provided a unique platform for cities to learn from each other and establish networks and communities of practice that will have sustainable results beyond the three-day meeting.

Cities around the world are training public transportation staff and police officers to improve the response to sexual violence in public spaces and are experimenting with the use of new technologies to enhance women’s safety programming. In Cairo, well-known rap artists are using social media to reach out to a critical mass of young people to promote women’s rights, while in New Delhi, a mobile phone app called Safetipin is being used to map out areas of the city that are perceived to be unsafe. In Mexico City, women-only transportation was established in 2007 through the Viajemos Seguras (“Let’s Travel Safely”) program, which includes women-only buses, separate subway cars for women during peak hours, and specialized information centers to facilitate women’s reporting of sexual violence on public transport.

We need full, effective and accelerated implementation in 2017. We have the opportunity to further demonstrate the commitment to rights of women and girls and propel substantive impact in the achievement of gender equality globally. Yet sexual harassment that women experience every day in public spaces will not stop if attitudes, social norms, and cultural practices or behaviors that cause and perpetuate it continue.

Today, mayors and local authorities have a great opportunity to lead our way from cities 50-50 to planet 50-50 — where women and men have true 50:50 equality in leadership, decision-making, access to resources, education, safety, and employment — by 2030. Achieving urban sustainable development will not be possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its human rights and opportunities.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Lakshmi Puri

    Lakshmi Puri is assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of UN Women. She is directly responsible for the leadership and management of the Bureau for Intergovernmental Support, UN System Coordination and Strategic Partnerships, and was the acting head of UN Women from March to August 2013.