Goal 11 of the new Sustainable Development Goals calls for the global society to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. The targets under this Goal include things like ensuring all people have access to decent housing and transportation systems, improving roads, and reducing the number of deaths occurring from and number of people affected by disasters.
Two of the targets specifically address women, namely:
11.2: By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons
11.7 By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities
Cities, urban areas and public spaces can make or break efforts towards gender equality. Poor infrastructure such as low quality roads, unreliable or unsafe public transportation systems and safety of spaces like parks and squares impacts everyone – but disproportionately impact the lives and well-being of women and girls, especially in terms of their safety and security. For the first time ever, more people are living in cities than in urban areas – and the number keeps growing. Most of the expected urban growth is happening in developing countries, and according to the 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report by UN DESA, largest urban growth is expected to take place in India, China and Nigeria.
As part of their Because I am a Girl-campaign, Plan International has carried out an urban program study in Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala and Lima, involving over 1,000 adolescent girls from these five cities. The research showed that while there are some benefits to girls from living in urban areas, such as girls usually being more educated and marrying later compared to their rural counterparts, fear and threat of violence prevent girls from being able to have full access to all areas of their cities. Girls who participated in the study shared feelings and experiences of insecurity, exclusion, sexual harassment and violence. Issues that constricted their movement and contributed to their feelings of insecurity included things like lack of proper lighting in public areas, alleyways and streets, lack of public transportation systems that girls could safely use, overcrowded places where girls would get groped and approached by men, and lack of safe toilets which forces girls to use open spaces, putting them at increased risk of sexual harassment.
Unsafe roads, areas and transportation impact women and girls disproportionately – and because women tend to spend more time in their neighborhoods and homes, poor infrastructure such as low quality sanitation, water and electricity expose them to disease and indoor air pollution. Lack of safe and clean toilets in public facilities such as schools can prevent girls from having access to education, and unsafe transportation prevents women from accessing important and even life-saving services, including prenatal visits. Availability and accessibility of urban services also greatly benefits women, as pointed out by UNFPA in their 2007 State of World Population Report. Availability of such services can help to reduce women’s triple burden of reproductive, productive and community work and support and, as we’ve learned time and time again, increasing women’s well-being translates to higher levels of well-being for all.
Building cities and settlements that promote gender equality isn’t rocket science – but it is something that takes deliberate planning, and proper understanding of the differential needs of women, men, girls and boys. This requires us to do exactly what Plan did – going to women and girls, and talking to them. Listening to them. Asking them what they need in order for them to feel safe in cities and urban areas – and not only feel safe, but to be able to fully participate in the society on all levels. We need to bring women and girls to the table and ask them what works and what doesn’t – and most importantly, we need to ensure that women are not only at the table, but included as engineers, bus drivers, park employees, police and security officers, construction workers, drivers.
Women and girls are not only the beneficiaries, but the building blocks of safer, more gender-equal cities, urban areas and settlements. We don’t only need their insights, but their skills and talents as well to ensure that the cities of tomorrow are truly inclusive and safe for all.
Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.