With its population of nearly 1.5 million, my hometown of Madurai, India, is a city rich in history, culture, and proud traditions. But like many large cities around the world, it also is a place that can be unsafe for women.
As the leader of a program in Madurai designed to empower women and girls, I know that we cannot win the fight to end violence against women and girls until we address how violence is cemented into the urban landscape. Broken sidewalks without curbs or curb cuts (the slopes from sidewalk to street that make it possible for strollers and wheelchairs to move easily), dark and narrow streets, crowded and unprotected mass transit, and places of filthy, open defecation are often the breeding grounds for violence.
Although most women in Madurai have never heard of #MeToo or #TimesUp, we share the experience of violence, harassment, and abuse at home, at work, and in daily life. And we, too, are working with other women toward #CitiesforWomen and greater equality for all.
Many of the problems we face here are global. Consider this:
- A 2009 UN Women survey in Delhi, India, found 95 percent of women saying their mobility was limited by fear of harassment in public places.
- In a Kenyan survey from Women’s Empowerment Link, more than 50 percent of the 381 women interviewed in 2017 said they’d experienced gender-based violence while using public transport. A 2013 survey of 4,500 female commuters in Mumbai found that about 75 percent didn’t feel safe taking public transport after sundown.
- A survey of 16 major cities worldwide conducted by Reuters in 2016 found that women in Latin American cities suffered the highest rates of harassment, with about 6 in 10 women experiencing physical harassment on public transport.
- According to the World Bank-led partnership Sustainable Mobility For All, 53 percent of women in developed countries feel “unsafe’” or “very unsafe” waiting on a railway platform after dark.
By 2030, more than 60 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. With women representing more than half the world’s population, cities need to improve their urban infrastructure and create places where women can feel safe.
In India, one of the greatest dangers for women centers on the most basic bodily function – the need to go to the toilet. A 2011 report on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals proclaimed that in India, it is easier to find cellphone coverage than a proper toilet. More than 626 million people don’t have a closed toilet, the highest number in the world, and consequently practice open defecation. In Madurai, a minority of people living in city slums have indoor toilets.
The treacherous nature of toilets was highlighted four years ago, in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. Lacking an indoor toilet, two young teens did what millions of women in India do each day. Under cloak of darkness, the teens went out after sunset, headed for an open field to relieve themselves. There, alone and afraid, the same darkness that provided privacy enabled male attackers to rape the girls and hang them from a tree. The case called attention both to violence against women and to the specific dangers women face each day in attending to the most basic bodily function.
Open defecation in more private corners of the city remains a major problem. Without bathrooms, women try to wait for the cover of darkness to attend to their needs and never go out alone. But the same darkness that affords privacy also exposes women to physical abuse. Every day, attackers and rapists make the most of exploiting the darkness of city streets.
In addition, waiting long periods to urinate – 12 hours or more – can cause serious health problems, and open defecation leads to the spread of disease when, in rainy season, polluted streets and overfull gullies flood and back up into homes.
The organization I work for, the DHAN Foundation, a member of the WomenStrong International Consortium, has been supporting the construction of toilets designed to be shared by families living on the street in the most impoverished neighborhoods. These same families are responsible for cleaning and “patrolling” the toilets. There are examples throughout the world of people taking responsibility themselves for solving the problem, but more needs to be done by governments with an obligation to protect all their citizens.
More inclusive city planning would help, along with the creation of infrastructure sensitive to the needs of women and girls – better street lighting and broader streets, fewer dead-end alleys, police patrolling in unsafe locations, and more clean and safe public toilets. In some parts of India, the police themselves are part of the problem – understaffed, biased in favor of the male perpetrators, and disinclined to pay attention to impoverished women and girls. But in Madurai, we’ve been lucky in having a special, all-female police unit that has been very helpful in raising consciousness and dealing with cases of violence.
Safer cities enable every individual to move through her day without fear and with unfettered access to social, economic, political, cultural, and educational opportunities. In Madurai, we work closely with local city officials on projects to address city infrastructure and climate change. Most recently, a large group of women from DHAN helped the city plan and implement a rainwater recapture program throughout our neighborhoods.
But it will take all of us – individual citizens and groups of citizens, men and women, government and non-governmental organizations, such as WomenStrong – to create safe cities where women and girls can lead healthy, prosperous, and fulfilling lives without fear.
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