One in three women around the world currently experience gender-based violence. Harmful practices such as trafficking, forced marriage, domestic violence and female genital mutilation occur both in public and in private spaces. Today, these forms of violence are recognised as a major violation of human rights, a public health challenge and one of the clearest forms of gender discrimination. It’s also widely acknowledged that women experience heightened levels of violence in cities.
Tens of thousands of delegates from right across the globe met in Quito, Ecuador, to discuss the future of cities at the UN’s Habitat III conference, where the fifth and final version of the New Urban Agenda was adopted by member states. The document will help to guide urban policy around the world for the next 20 years. Which begs the question: how have women’s voices and gender issues been incorporated into it?
Impressively, with each new draft of this latest document, women’s views are increasingly being taken on board. Consultation took place at a range of levels, with notable contributions from important global networks that fight for women’s rights and gender equality, such as Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) and the Huairou Commission.
Living without fear
From the first draft to the final document, references to women more than doubled from 14 paragraphs to 32, out of 175. The final document explicitly states that cities should:
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal rights in all fields and in leadership at all levels of decision-making, and by ensuring decent work and equal pay for equal work, or work of equal value for all women, as well as preventing and eliminating all forms of discrimination, violence and harassment against women and girls in private and public spaces.
The fact that these commitments explicitly address the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls in public and private spaces, as well as safety and security for women in cities, is a major achievement.
In particular, there are three commitments that have the potential, not just to empower individual women, but also to transform gender power relations in cities. These include land tenure rights for women, which gives women individual titles to land. When integrated into land regulation procedures, measures like these can transform gender power relations because it means women no longer have to depend on men in order to access land, as seen in Recife, Brazil.
Another key commitment relates to informal economy opportunities for women in terms of “livelihoods, working conditions, income security, legal and social protection”. Access to an independent income for those working in the informal economy – such as waste-pickers and recyclers – empowers women, while successfully contesting legal rights can change structural power relations by reducing their dependence on men for financial resources.
The third commitment relates to calls for cities with “public spaces and streets, free from crime and violence, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence”. This empowers women by enhancing their mobility, and access to both education and employment opportunities, which can allow them to live more independent lives.
Yet some measures to address violence against women and girls were diluted throughout the five drafts. The first draft not only identified the importance of preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls in cities, it also specified how it should be addressed: through a range of measures, including the “investigation, prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators”.
It also called for the provision of services for survivors, recognition “that the treatment of women and girls can be a broader reflection of societal norms” and a commitment to “using education and public awareness campaigns as a further tool against abuse”.
But by the final draft, making places safer for women and girls had become a matter relating merely to the design and management of infrastructure and urban public spaces – for instance, by ensuring transport is accessible and improving urban sanitation. There was no acknowledgement that many of the problems faced by women and girls are caused by underlying gender inequalities in society. And in the paragraph on urban safety, crime and violence prevention, women are entirely ignored.
Throughout the agenda, women are typically referred to as part of a composite, monolithic and vulnerable group. There are continual references to “age and gender-responsive” interventions – but very little clarity as to what this means or involves in practice.
In fact, only one practical commitment was made, to age and gender-responsive budgeting. This involves strengthening the capacity of national, sub-national and local governments to ensure that there are equal numbers of women represented throughout all state institutions, and to take women’s needs into account in the allocation of state budgets.
Compromises have to be made when agreeing on global agendas and the inclusion of women is complex and contradictory. But if the UN’s agenda is to effectively address issues of violence against women and girls, it needs to clarify the meaning of generic “gender-responsive” commitments, and consider women specifically, rather than as part of a larger group of “vulnerable” citizens.
While design and management can play an important role in forging safer cities, it is essential to move beyond these aspects, in order to transform gender relations in urban spaces around the world over the next 20 years.
This is part of a series on publicly funded UK research at the UN Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador. It is a collaboration between the Urban Transformations Network, UK Economic and Social Research Council and The Conversation UK.