Take women’s rights into cities’ streets


One of the priorities for the United Nations sustainable development agenda is to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. City leaders can take a simple step that would go a long way toward achieving this goal: putting the needs of women and girls at the centre of their urban planning process.

By 2030, the majority of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Although increased urbanisation — and the economic openings, mobility and greater autonomy that accompany it — will generate new opportunities for women, ensuring gender equality will become more difficult. This concern is especially relevant in the Arab world.

In many areas, urban space is, by default, male space. Men act as if they own the street, which is reflected in how they walk and how they treat women in public. In many Arab cities, as is true elsewhere, men are also far more likely than women to litter, reinforcing the perception that men consider public spaces to be their personal property.

The irony is that the street has long been a stage for feminist progress. Even before women raised their voices during the 2011 Arab Spring, urban spaces played host to feminist protests and served as a political barometer for the rest of society.

But urban feminism is not widely studied by city planners in the Arab world. Awareness of how public space in cities is gendered is rare and little information has been collected on how women affect — or are affected by — planning decisions. Without a deeper understanding of the sociospatial needs of women, the region’s streets will remain the domain of men.

Although sexual harassment is common, attention to gendered urban space is not only about safety. Women not only risk verbal and physical abuse when they are in public, they must also contend with issues such as poor sanitation, a limited number of toilets, a lack of clean and privacy. Marginalised groups — such as migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, girls, elderly women and the disabled — are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.

Solutions, therefore, must consider the full range of social and cultural challenges that prevent women and girls from moving freely in urban settings. To help cities to progress towards greater inclusivity, governments should focus on four key reforms.

For starters, city planners should co-operate with women’s groups to conduct safety audits and map high-risk areas. By analysing crime data, for example, planners could determine where to focus improvements such as better lighting and additional policing. When women’s organisations are involved in these types of decisions, cities become safer for women, which in turn improves their access to social, economic, cultural and political opportunities.

Next, education systems must be reconfigured to encourage more women and girls to pursue careers in architecture, planning and urban design. In most Arab cities, planning processes are inaccessible to much of the population; they are even less accessible to women. To change the patriarchal status quo, we must encourage more young women to enter these fields and to design modern spaces that are sensitive to women’s needs.

Third, cities need standardised methods for measuring women’s rights in urban environments. One way to achieve this would be to establish scoring systems created by and for women. Surveys could include questions about legal frameworks, involvement in urban planning decision-making, public transportation habits and views on housing, recreation and safety.

Finally, urban planners must rethink how they fill public spaces. Consider, for example, historical statues; in many cities, only men are lionised in bronze. Why not women? If gender equality was a criterion in commissioning public art, women and men would grow up knowing that their city was a place where everyone is honoured, protected and respected.

Urban planning is never gender-neutral and leaders in Arab cities, in particular, must work hard to account for all residents’ views and desires. For women and girls, requirements include safe streets, well-maintained public facilities and gender-specific amenities — such as nursing rooms for mothers. In a truly safe city, everyone’s rights are considered, everyone can use public spaces and everyone is involved in the planning process.

If planners consistently applied such principles in their work, the Arab city would naturally become a catalyst for female empowerment. And when cities become engines of opportunity for women, everyone benefits. — © Project Syndicate

Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, speaks and publishes frequently on a range of gender issues

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