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City girls: creating safe spaces for women and girls

As we mark International Women’s Day this week, we should pause to consider that violence against women and girls has reached epidemic proportions in the world’s cities, where an estimated 3.4 billion people – half the world’s population – live.

The urban population is growing by some 60 million people each year, so roughly 7 out of 10 people will be living in cities by 2050.  There is an urgent need to look closely at how urban living can be made safer for everyone.

Fear Street

Every day, women’s and girl’s rights to education, work, recreation and participation in political life are denied because of sexual harassment and violence as they go about their daily life.

Crime prevention strategies are often too generic and very rarely take into account gender sensitive measures that are needed to protect women and girls.

Politicians, policy makers and urban planners need to be much more aware of this issue. The needs and vulnerabilities of poorer women and girls, especially those living in city slums, must be safeguarded.

Making cities safer

There has been increasing recognition that  governments and town planners need to do more to make cities safer for women and girls.

The 2010 UN-HABITAT and UNIFEM partnership was an important global initiative to recognise the problem. Other initiatives have advocated concrete measures, including improved street lighting in strategic places; stronger laws against violence in public places; better training for urban planners and national audits to check the implementation of policies; and media campaigns on zero tolerance for gender-based violence.

Civil society, especially groups run by and for women, has played a critical role in supporting and guiding these initiatives so that they reflect the reality of city life for women and girls.

Safe spaces for adolescent girls

Most urban growth is taking place not in megacities but in smaller cities and towns, a fact highlighted by UNICEF last week in its 2012 report, Children in an Urban World. The report draws special attention to the sexual harassment and violence that is a daily reality for girls and women living in cities.

Some exciting initiatives exist that help to create safe environments for adolescent girls growing up in slums. These include providing spaces for recreation, opportunities for mentoring and a forum for discussion.

Bright future

Biruh Tesfa (Bright Future) is a government-run programme for girls at risk of exploitation and abuse in a slum area of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The project reaches out to girls aged 10–19 , who are out of school, mostly migrants living away from their families. It provides them with a space to build peer support networks and offers tuition in literacy, life skills, reproductive health and livelihoods.

Save the Children’s safe spaces project in Nigeria  supports young married women aged below 20.

Women who marry young in Northern Nigeria often find themselves at the bottom of the household hierarchy. Lacking social and moral support from their husbands, co-wives or mothers-in law, they can become isolated and vulnerable to abuse and neglect. They often have low levels of self confidence and few opportunities to access information and services or to participate in the social networks vital to the creation of self-respect.

Girls involvement is needed

Safer, more inclusive and more accessible cities can come about only if girls participate in creating them.

Experts in their own realities, girls can actively contribute to urban design and to community level decision making – a process that can empower them to play a leading role in creating safer future environments.

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