Women on the streets of smart cities



Gender-based violence in South Africa is significant enough to affect nearly every aspect of daily life, even instances in which women merely occupy or pass through public spaces. Its many forms, from street harassment to rape, murder and increasing cases of abductions, remain tricky to pin down to exact numbers, but incidents such as a young woman’s post office murder, coupled with women’s consistent anticipation of catcalling as part of a daily commute and a lack of safety in e-hailing services should be alarming enough to galvanise us all into immediate action.

In addition to activists’ efforts towards justice for survivors, something has got to give in spatial planning that neglects women’s needs. Beyond futuristic, tech-driven plans for safety, basic social needs are still not met in many communities. Inadequate urban environments have a more acute effect on women’s safety: unstable housing and unsafe outdoor toilets that make women and girls targets. Other situations that affect women in more developed parts of South Africa include being alone in public spaces, leaving the home after dark, and violence inside the actual home. These impediments hamper women’s ability to access a wider range of employment, obtain adult education and engage in civic, community and social activities.

Achievable considerations such as erecting good lighting, maintaining clear lines of vision to public spaces by cutting back shrubs, prioritising pedestrians and creating public spaces safe enough for breastfeeding won’t take much time or effort to achieve, and will go a long way to making women feel safer. Considering that South African women are disproportionately breadwinners, their right to safety seems to count for little, with their mobility obstructed by the constant threat of violence. The planning of safe smart cities around South Africa needs to centre on women’s safety.

Ling Tan, a designer, maker and software developer specialising in social wearables and community participation, says: “Technology can be used to amplify the issue of safety by harnessing people’s collective effort. When the implementation of technology is carried out appropriately by involving the people who are affected by the issue in the design process, it has the ability to bring people together, kick-starting the conversations and even enabling actions to be taken on the issue as a community.”

She adds: “We do have to be careful about what type of technology is being used, as it sometimes acts as a double-edged sword: giving up our privacy to mass surveillance, for one. We also cannot assume that technology can solve all our problems, as this takes away our sense of responsibility and agency as citizens to tackle the problem ourselves. Ultimately it is people that need to deal with the root of the problem.”

In using gadgets to supplement social efforts that make our societies safer, Tan maintains: “Technology is often introduced top-down, without consultation with the citizens, and we end up with infrastructures and tech products that are underutilised because people do not know that they are accessible to them. By involving them from the start, they have a sense of ownership to the technology, they become local ambassadors. This also helps create a long-lasting legacy where the people take care of the technology themselves, rather than relying on external parties to maintain it.”

This is where innovations like the My Safetipin App come in: the app allows users to rate how safe they feel in a location and provide an explanation for their rating, and that information is passed onto the next person who visits that neighbourhood while using the app. Developed in India, the project was awarded to South African organisation Soul City by Womanity, so that a replica can be created and used locally.

Soul City’s Dr Shereen Usdin says: “With the research that we’ve done with Soul City, we have found that a lot of women are scared to use public transport, even if it’s the only transport that they have. Often they choose not to go to places rather than risk their lives. So, what we are doing with the Safetipin app is crowdsourcing a safety audit, to get a sense of the areas where women feel most at risk and the reasons why they feel unsafe. We will then take the data developed through the project to advise municipalities on the allocation of safety budgets in their urban planning, taking into account the lived experiences of the women in those cities.”

Similarly, Triple Black Agency’s Safe Pace running app uses reported contact crime data from the South African Police Service to determine an area’s safety and communicate it to users. Safe Pace founder Babusi Nyoni aims to make the sharing of safety updates easy, and make information as dynamic as possible: their new update promises a more balanced report, harnessing information gathered from people who frequent the different areas in which users to mark routes as safe and unsafe, using feedback for route recommendations.

The Safe Pace app will also update the map with pseudo-real time locations of other verified users, allowing friends to share and track each other’s journeys, and will provide subscribers with alerts for dangerous rideshare drivers. In turn, the users plan to share the insights gained through Safepace with municipalities. Through public and private co-operation, it’s possible to create a safer future for women, girls and everyone who lives under threat of gender-based violence. 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The pandemic’s effect is gendered

Although two thirds of job losses were experienced by women, two thirds of the recipients of the R350 Covid-19 grant were men

New education policy on gender violence released

Universities and other higher education institutions have to develop ways of preventing or dealing with rape and other damaging behaviour

Crime stats mark a bitter start to Women’s Month

We must celebrate women’s achievements this month while agitating for structural change, argues Luke Waltham

Hopefield: Brutal police vs brutalised citizens

The small town’s residents, who say they’ve been terrorised by rogue police officers for years, were unsurprised when Reginald Linnerd was found beaten to death in a holding cell

‘Ngibambeni, ngibambeni bomama!’ Refiguring Princess Magogo

The official historiography of Princess Magogo misses the nuances and influences of the many women in her life

The Sisterhood: Reviving the evidence of things not seen

The Sisterhood reminds us that Black women are always our own antidote, our own cure. It was a refuge and refusal conceived by women who cared even when they didn’t have to

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Eusebius McKaiser: Reject the dichotomy of political horrors

Senekal shows us that we must make a stand against the loud voice of the populist EFF and racist rightwingers

Seals abort pups in mass die-off

There are a number of factors — a pollutant, virus or bacteria or malnutrition — may have caused the 12 000 deaths on Namibia’s coast

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday