“I wish I could be free and live without fear; I wish we had well lit streets in my neighbourhood; I wish the neighbourhood was well patrolled, and I didn’t need to be afraid of the police. It would be wonderful if I could feel safe on the bus and could go to school or any other place without a single hint of fear of anything in my eyes. But that’s not what life here is like.”
This is the sentiment shared by 15-year old Hannah* from Santo Agostinho in the northeast of Brazil. These are words I have heard repeated by women across the world through my work with ActionAid, an anti-poverty organisation. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March and head towards the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration – a landmark moment for women’s rights – Hannah’s resignation to the realities of her life is a stark reflection on how pervasive gender inequality still is.
Yes, some progress has been made since the Beijing Declaration was signed by almost all countries in 1995. Since then, two-thirds of countries have enacted legislation on domestic violence. This is a major step in addressing a staggering human rights abuse that affects so many. Yet a lot more needs to be done when research is still telling us that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
In many areas women’s lives have not improved and in some instances, have worsened. ActionAid is incredibly concerned by the sexual harassment and sexual violence women face in public, a neglected issue. ActionAid’s research on violence in urban communities in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Liberia, Nepal, South Africa and Zimbabwe, has revealed that none of these countries have laws addressing gender-related violence outside of the home. Why have none of the legislators in these countries prioritised the enactment of laws to protect women from groping, harassment, rape or verbal abuse on streets, on buses and in marketplaces?
In South Africa, 60% of women told ActionAid that they felt their homes were safe spaces, while only 12% felt safe from physical or verbal abuse in their neighbourhoods. In Zimbabwe, 53% of women said that streets and other places in their cities were the most likely place for violence to occur. Women perceive the public space as unsafe and this is unacceptable.
It is wrong that women and girls like Hannah cannot leave their homes to go to school and college without fear of being harassed. Millions of girls and women around the world are restricted from fully benefiting from the educational, political, economic and leisure opportunities that towns and cities offer. The poorer and more marginalised women are, the more they are affected. Women are forced to restrict their lifestyles and adapt out of necessity. We have heard the same stories repeated across the globe, from Cambodian garment workers who fear robbery while walking home from the factories at night, from poor Brazilian women who lack other transport options and have to walk along unlit streets to get home and from Zimbabwean women who face physical, sexual, psychological and verbal abuse on streets, at bus terminals and when using communal water holes.
Many women who want to report incidents of violence and harassment fear being blamed by police. Women simply do not trust that the justice system will do right by them. To address this injustice, governments must lead public education campaigns to stop sexist attitudes towards women and end the stigma and shame that is deep-rooted in many, if not all, of our societies.
Despite this fear of violence and shaming, women across the globe are reclaiming their right to their cities. Last November, Brazilian women in São Paulo walked the streets with lanterns to raise awareness of just how precarious it is to live without street lighting. Women and men are marching, dancing, singing and shouting, demanding better public services which will enable them to fully participate in city life. Their public representatives - whether mayors, governors, members of parliament or councillors – must listen. Their demands for change – whether that is for safer and more accessible public transport, street lighting, better trained police or new laws specifically addressing violence outside of the home and in the work place – must be heard and supported.
It is not just a question of public services which need to be radically improved. I cannot help but feel that all of us, men and women, have come to accept that violence in public is normal. Cases of domestic violence are horrific and rightly more and more people are speaking out and taking action. But for so many women, being harassed on a bus, stared at, or followed down a street on the way home from work or school is considered the norm and is tolerated by too many. Attitudes and expectations, including among women, must change.
This year International Women’s Day takes place just days before government representatives, women’s rights activists and policy leaders meet in New York to review the agreement they made twenty years ago in Beijing to improve the lives of women. It should not be another twenty years before governments hear the voices of women and girls like Hannah and actually follow through on their responsibilities to make their cities safe.
*Hannah (not her real name) took part in an ActionAid focus group as part of research into women’s safety in urban areas.