Sexism in the City: working with girls and young women to make safer cities
Urbanisation, Sexism and the Sustainable Development Goals
For the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. Today, cities are home to 54% of the world’s population, and by the middle of this century, that figure will rise to 66%. (World Cities Report: UN-Habitat 2016) By 2030, this will mean approximately 700 million girls will live in urban areas.
Girls and young women who live in cities are faced with increased risks as well as increased opportunities. On the one hand, girls are more likely to be educated, less likely to be married at an early age, and more likely to participate in politics. On the other, girls and young women face sexual harassment, exploitation, and insecurity as they navigate the urban environment.
Global research we conducted in 2013 on girls’ experiences of Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima revealed that girls do not feel safe, welcome or included in their cities. Our research found that only 3% of girls in Delhi felt safe on public transport and only 2% of girls felt safe walking in public place. (Plan International, Adolescent Girls’ Views on Safety in Cities Findings from the Because I am a Girl Urban Programme Study in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima, March 2013)
More recently, research that we conducted in Sydney with girls and young women, found that 1 in 4 girls in Sydney experience street harassment at least once a month. Sadly, these girls reported experiencing anxiety, depression or ongoing mental health issues as a direct result of this harassment. (Plan International Australia, Sexism in the City, Young Women Speak Up About Street Harassment in Sydney, May 2018, p 4.)
The impact of this harassment can be far-reaching and it is clearly a barrier to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular, SDG 5 (Gender Equality) and SDG 11 (Safe and Inclusive Cities).
The Sustainable Development Goals provide an ambitious agenda that is intended to “leave no one behind”, a catchcry that ensures that the most marginalised girls and young women in cities are part of driving solutions to ensure that they are safe and included in their cities.
Creating Safer Cities with and for girls
Plan International’s Safer Cities for Girls programme has been developed with partner organisations UN-Habitat and Women in Cities International.
The program goal is to build safe, accountable, and inclusive cities with and for adolescent girls (aged 13-18). The global program is currently being implemented in eight cities. Delhi, India; Hanoi, Vietnam; Cairo, Egypt; Kampala, Uganda; Nairobi, Kenya; Lima, Peru; San Francisco, Paraguay, and Honiara, Solomon Islands.
By working closely with girls and decision-makers, the program aims to increase girls’ safety and access to public spaces as well as promote active and meaningful participation in urban development and governance and increased autonomous mobility in the city for girls.
In the Photo: A young woman in Sydney uses the Free to Be app to drop a pin. Photo Credit: Kayla Robertson, Plan International Australia
Free to Be
One of the core elements of the Safer Cities for Girls program is offering girls the opportunity to map safe and unsafe places in their cities. In 2016, Plan International Australia digitised this process, creating Free to Be, an online crowd-mapping tool, in collaboration with Crowdspot, Monash University’s XYX Lab and young women activists.
Free to Be is an interactive map of the city and a survey which allows girls and women to drop ‘pins’ on the map – good or bad – on places they love, avoid, feel safe in and think can be improved, and to answer a small number of questions about their experiences there, as well as leave comments.
Based on Plan International’s extensive experience of working with girls and young women in cities through our Safer Cities programme, the research sought to understand more about the experiences of girls and young women from their perspectives, ensuring their voices are heard in the broader discussion on safety in the city.
In the Photo: Across six weeks in April-May 2018, girls and women in five cities across five continents were able to drop sad and happy pins using the interactive Free to Be mapping tool. Photo Credit: Kayla Robertson, Plan International Australia
Following the pilot project in 2016 in Melbourne, Free to Be was launched globally in five cities across five continents: Sydney (Australia), Lima (Peru), Delhi (India), Madrid (Spain) and Kampala (Uganda).
Over a six week period, we invited girls in these cities to digitally map the places in their city that they love and the places in the city that they feel unsafe and excluded from
Monash University’s XYX Gender + Space Lab analysed the quantitative and qualitative data and stories provided by young women across six weeks in early 2018.
The full global report and findings will be released on International Day of the Girl, 11 October 2018.
The response from girls and young women to the Free to Be project has in many ways been overwhelming. Their use of this platform demonstrates clearly that they want to be heard, that they are actively looking for a change and want to be involved as leaders in bringing it about. Many had already taken risks in calling out and reporting the harassment they face.
In the Photo: Three of Plan International Australia’s youth activists ask “Do you feel safe in your city?” Photo Credit: Kayla Robertson, Plan International Australia
Sydney: A Snapshot
In rolling out Free to Be in Sydney, Plan International worked closely with our youth activists, a group of young women leaders in Sydney. Our youth activists were heavily involved in the design and promotion of the tool, as well as having an opportunity to reflect on the findings to support the analysis.
The response in Sydney to Free to Be was overwhelming. In total, 2,083 pins were dropped, of which 25% denoted good experiences and 75% bad. Free to Be painted a picture of Sydney seen through the eyes of women and girls.
In the Photo: Lauren, one of Plan International Australia’s youth activists, worries about navigating the city at night after school. Photo Credit: Kayla Robertson, Plan International Australia
What do women and girls tell us is the impact of harassment?
Worryingly, our research has found that women and girls change their behaviour in response to the lack of safety in cities: whether avoiding an area when alone, never returning, or even stopping studying or quitting a job because of their experiences, it is clear that the impact of harassment is significant.
Many are resigned to experiencing harassment – such incidents are so frequent that women and girls are used to it. Consequently, they take their own precautions such as walking fast through such areas with their phones at the ready.
As mentioned above, 1 in 3 girls who have been harassed once a month or more report experiencing anxiety, depression or ongoing mental health issues as a direct result. This doubles for those who have been harassed on a regular basis (once a month or more) and girls who first experienced street harassment at a younger age (15 or under) see long-lasting impacts on their behaviour and well-being. (Plan International, Adolescent Girls’ Views on Safety in Cities Findings from the Because I am a Girl Urban Programme Study in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima, March 2013.)
The normalisation of gender-based harassment and the lack of clarity on what is legal and illegal means reporting rates are low (1 in 10). Those who did report to authorities received a mixed response, compounding fears of victim-blaming or that what they had experienced would be belittled as “harmless fun.”
In the Picture: Three of Plan International Australia’s youth activists who have been involved in sharing their city through stakeholder engagement. Photo Credit: Kayla Robertson, Plan International Australia
Solutions and interventions
Plan International Australia, together with our youth activists, have been working with a range of city authorities and stakeholders – from city and local councils, to Police, transport providers, the Government Architect of NSW and peak bodies such as Greater Sydney Commission and Committee for Sydney – to translate the Sydney Free to Be data and findings into solutions to make the city safer and more inclusive for everyone.
In June 2018 a multi-stakeholder design-thinking workshop was held, co-hosted with Arup, to design solutions to the challenges raised through the findings of the Free to Be Map. The workshop was attended by young women and representatives across government, academia and the private and not-for-profit sectors. With the lived experiences of young women and girls not often discussed in urban planning, design or policy, the workshop shifted away from this norm, placing the perspectives of young women at the centre.
In unpacking the findings from Free to Be, and listening to the experiences of young women and girls, it became evident that it was common for young women to actively avoid certain areas or modes of transport, seeing the exclusion of themselves from certain activities as a necessary step in ensuring their safety. As a result, the city’s offerings to them – be it related to study, work or leisure – and their level of mobility is reduced, as they are forced to navigate a city which, for them, exists in patches.
The workshop showed that continuing to collect, share and use data – as has been done through the Free to Be mapping tool – is essential to telling these stories and understanding how the experiences of the people and the spaces in our cities change, and how our thinking must do the same.
When exploring interventions and changes, participants agreed on the need to encourage a mix of uses and activities across Sydney to ensure they attract and cater to people of all ages, backgrounds and professions.
Whether in Sydney or globally, change is needed at three levels:
Physical solutions must go beyond lighting and CCTV. It must focus on inclusive urban planning, design and delivery. This can be achieved through meaningful and continuous engagement with young women and other marginalised groups as part of planning processes, to ensure these experiences and perspectives are actively considered when planning for cities;
Behavioural change campaigns and the application of new processes when developing citywide strategies can begin to tackle the social norms and attitudes that lead to offensive behaviour. In particular, encouraging positive masculinities and bystander intervention were two key areas identified by young women; and
Policy and legislative change, particularly where the law is unclear or open to interpretation regarding the definition of sexual harassment in public places, can provide clarity for victims, perpetrators and the justice system. This would, in turn, help improve reporting rates and responses.
Ultimately, the intersection between gender equality and safe and inclusive cities is clear. In order to achieve the 2030 Agenda, we need to continue to increase the visibility of the experience of vulnerable groups in public spaces, listen to their voices and stories, and work towards co-designed solutions that will result in fairer, more inclusive and safer cities for us all.
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Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com Featured Image Credit:Kayla Robertson, Plan International Australia.