From the horrific gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh aboard a private bus that she mistook for a public bus in Delhi to the fact that between 65% to 99% of women worldwide have experienced street harassment in urban areas, the issue of women’s public safety in public spaces has always been part and parcel of the worldwide pandemic of violence against women and girls. Unsafe cities impede women’s ability to work, socialise, and contribute to society, reducing their mobility and impacting their ability to participate in public life without the fear of violence and harassment.

Unsurprisingly, cities, workplaces, schools, and other public spaces have typically been designed by and for men without taking women’s safety and needs into account because public spaces have historically been enforced as the domain of men. From poorly-lit streets to isolating sprawling suburbs and a lack of reliable public transportation to seedy entertainment districts, many cities worldwide are heavily gendered spaces that have historically been planned and developed with only men in mind. A recent example is the newly-opened Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell University with grated floors designed by architect Wolfgang Tschapeller which caused an uproar because it inadvertently puts female students, faculty, and staff at risk of upskirting.

In the last 15 years, there has been increasing and concerted efforts to make cities and other spaces inclusive and safe for women. In 2010, UN Women launched their “Safe Cities, Safe Public Spaces” programme which partners with over 20 cities worldwide including those notorious for being particularly unsafe for women and girls such as Cairo, Egypt, New Delhi, India, and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. More cities and communities are beginning to recognise and acknowledge that public spaces are gendered and that strategic urban planning is one of the keys to eradicating violence against women.

If you are an urban planner or work for city hall or are a concerned city-dweller looking for ways to make your city safer for women and girls, this list offers 16 actions that you can take. While not all of the suggestions in this article may be suitable for your particular city, we hope that this will be a useful starting point.

Introduction by Regina Yau. Written and researched by Susanna Lim with additional research and writing by Regina Yau.

Recommended Action For Cities #1: Pay Attention to Data and Take Action

Knowledge is power, and the ability to collect and use data in an effective, strategic and meaningful way is one of the starting points cities can use to better understand how they can make their public spaces safer for women. From surveys to interviews to paying attention to petitions, there are plenty of ways to collect data as part of planning safer urban spaces. For example, in the 1990s, a simple survey in Vienna triggered the profound realisation by city planners that men and women have very different needs for public structures and systems including mass transit, street design, and workplace design. This resulted in the planners adding features that addressed the need of women for safety and reliable public transportation.


Recommended Action For Cities #2: Lights! Cameras! Safety!

Well-lit streets, more transparent public spaces and parking lots, with surveillance cameras, panic buttons, talk-back systems and greater footfall can make a huge positive impact on the safety of women in the city. Well-designed streets can tremendously lessen the risk of violence against women in public spaces, allowing women the freedom to go out in public at whatever hour they wish without constant fear of being followed, threatened or harassed. In Barcelona, for instance, Collective Point 6 is a cooperative of feminist architects, sociologists and urban planners who have been trying to factor safety for women into Barcelona’s streets for a decade.


Recommended Action For Cities #3: Make Public Transportation Accessible

Women generally have fewer transportation options because the ongoing pay gap due to gender inequality means that they earn less than men and are less likely to own personal transport such as a car which can be very costly to buy, run, and maintain. In very conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, it was only very recently (2018) that women were allowed to drive cars. Therefore, one of the first steps cities can – and should – take for making their public spaces safer is to provide well-connected public transit systems that serve more districts and neighbourhoods, with stops and stations ideally within walking distance of most buildings and streets in the surrounding area.


Recommended Action For Cities #4: Make Public Transport Affordable

According to the United Nations, men and women use public transport differently due to their social roles and women often take longer multi-stop trips on public transport as part of fulfilling their household and caretaking responsibilities. This means women frequently end up paying cumulatively higher fares because they have to use multiple stops and sometimes, even multiple forms of public transit. This, coupled with the gender income disparity, may make public transport inaccessible for low-income women who are frequently also from marginalised groups. Keeping fares low would ensure that even women with low incomes are able to pay for their travel and this could make a difference between getting home safely after a late-night shift and being forced to risk their personal safety by walking home in empty streets. One city which has taken this concept a step further is Delhi in India where the Delhi government recently decided to make bus rides free for women in their city.


Recommended Action For Cities #5: Make Public Transportation Safe

Above all, make public transport safety for women a priority. In 2018, a Plan International report found that sexual harassment is the top safety risk facing girls and young women across the world, with Lima considered the most dangerous city of those surveyed for women to use public transport. Some of the measures that cities can take include ensuring that the interior of buses, trains, and trams are well-lit, that bus stops and train stations have CCTVs installed and, where possible, are built near areas of frequent footfall. On top of that, ensuring that all public transport staff including conductors and security teams are trained in safety measures and intervention is of utmost importance. If your city has a long track record of being extremely unsafe for women, consider providing women-only train carriages and buses. For instance, nearly 70% of women in Tokyo support having women-only train carriages to combat the long-running phenomenon of chikan (groping) by men on trains.


Recommended Action For Cities #6: Use Apps to Provide Safety Scores for Neighbourhoods and Districts

With the ubiquity of smartphones worldwide, cities should consider developing – or providing the financial and practical support for – apps that are designed to determine the safety of different areas in a city. For instance, Safetipin, a crowdsourced app developed by Kalpana Viswanath in Delhi, allows city dwellers to rate neighbourhoods with a “safety audit” score. A score would take into account factors such as lighting, how deserted a location is and whether women are often present in the location. The app even allows friends or family members to track a woman’s location or movements, with the permission of the user, of course. A similar app founded in Cairo is called HarassMap, which crowdsources information on violent incidents which occur against women, identifying areas where violence is common and to raise awareness about gender violence. This helps women make informed choices about which neighbourhoods need to be avoided for safety reasons, determine the safest routes to their destinations, and use the app as a tool for ensuring that they reach their destinations safely.


Recommended Action For Cities #7: Provide (or Support) Hotlines for Reporting Harassment and Other Forms of Violence Against Women

Helplines for women experiencing gender-based violence ranging from street harassment to sexual assault to workplace harassment have been slowly increasing in numbers and accessibility over the past few decades. This service is frequently the first contact many women make with getting help after an attack including medical assistance, legal advice, and shelter. Yet many countries only have national-level helplines which are often underfunded and understaffed. Cities can help on a local level by providing a city-wide hotline for reporting gender-based violence or providing funding for anti-violence against women nonprofits in the city to keep hotlines staffed and active.


Recommended Action For Cities #8: Implement City-level Anti-violence Against Women Initiatives and Policies

While federal governments work on the national level to implement laws and policies regarding violence against women including public violence such as street harassment and stalking, there are steps cities can take on their own to intervene, prevent, and assist with stopping gender-based violence within their own public spaces. For instance, in Kigali, Rwanda, the city authorities have taken multiple steps to improve public safety for women who reside there, including building 16 safe mini-markets to provide secure, organised workplaces for female street hawkers, complete with breastfeeding areas. Certain buses also have CCTV cameras installed with voice alerts on sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence.


Recommended Action For Cities #9: Train Law Enforcement Appropriately

The problem with how violence against women is addressed by city authorities is that it is often reactive rather than preventive. A lack of seriousness towards stalking – which at least partially takes place in public spaces –  can often result in intervention being made at a point after the fact or abuse, when really it could have been prevented much earlier. Training the police in preventative measures is so important. For example, the New York’s Coordinated Approach to Preventing Stalking (CAPS) programme, which seeks to identify intimate partner stalking cases, and intervening before stalking behaviour escalates to physical injury. The programme involves special training for NYPD officers, members of the District Attorney’s office and community partners to identify stalking behaviour such as the use of technology in stalking and works with victims to document evidence of such incidents.


Recommended Action For Cities #10: Provide Equal Opportunities for Women to Participate in Governance

Women need women representing women at all levels of government including at the local level, which is frequently the city council. Empowering women to take up positions in lawmaking is vital for there to even begin to be a conversation about women’s issues, including violence against women. Working towards a 50/50 gender representation in governance is crucial to break the wheel and affect real change. For instance, in Malawi, the 50:50 Campaign Malawi: Win with Women campaign aims to increase its women representation in key institutions through engagement with the media and political parties to find solutions around women leadership from the ground-up.


Recommended Action For Cities #11: Vote for Leaders who Stand Up for Women’s Rights

It’s absolutely crucial to elect political leaders who fight for women’s human rights including reducing violence against women. Having a Prime Minister like Jacinta Arden of New Zealand would lead to policies that address women’s needs, progress towards gender equality, more services for victims of gender-based violence, better maternal healthcare, and pay equity. On a city-level, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel expanded the City’s shelter bed capacity for victims of domestic violence by 50%, a huge contribution to aiding domestic violence survivors.


Recommended Action For Cities #12: Start with The Kids

Cities can and should require schools within their jurisdiction to educate boys and girls from a young age about gender equality and bystander intervention. Such programmes can trigger immense transformation to communities when cities choose to make them a compulsory part of children’s education. For example, in Nairobi, the No Means No Worldwide programme is implemented in schools for both boys and girls to create a rape and gender violence-free culture. Ten months after completing the course, over half of participating girls reported that they had used their new skills to avert sexual assault. 75% of boys trained by the programme successfully intervened in a violent or sexual assault on a woman.


Recommended Action For Cities #13: Encourage Bystander Intervention

A new study called “Would I be helped? Cross-national CCTV footage shows that intervention is the norm in public conflicts” (2019) discovered that bystander intervention still proves to be the most effective method of breaking up public fights in cities in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and South Africa. For street harassment and other forms of public gender-based violence, activists have long advocated for the importance of training individuals and communities in effective bystander intervention as part of long-term efforts to change the culture that encourages violence against women. For example, when Washington D.C. introduced a bill called the Street Harassment Prevention Act in 2017, one of the major components of the bill is bystander training programmes for government employees.


Recommended Action For Cities #14:   Use Culture, Sports, and Entertainment to Raise Awareness

Nothing brings people together and gets people talking quite like culture, sports and the arts do. They can be leveraged to raise awareness and create the cultural changes needed to eradicate violence against women in city spaces. The city of Tokyo set one such example with its event “Transforming Gender Social Norms through Comedy: Fighting Terrorism One Laugh at a Time” which was organised by UN Women and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another programme run by UN Women in Cairo was the “Cairo Safe City Free of Violence Against Women and Girls Programme”, which was run in response to the fact that tuk tuks (motorised tricycles) was a common place women experienced harassment. The programme engaged drivers through interactive games, art therapy and sports to raise awareness about the issue. Today, many of these same tuk tuk drivers volunteer for anti-harassment campaigns that reach out to other tuk tuk drivers to educate them on women’s rights.


Recommended Action For Cities #15: Participate in City-to-City Knowledge Pooling

Knowledge hubs, where cities share their successes and failures in implementing change for preventing violence against women, can help cities learn from each other and be more productive in the policies or initiatives they choose to adopt. For instance, in Vienna, the URBACT Gender Equal Cities Knowledge Hub recently gathered practitioners from cities across Europe including Athens, Umea, Venice, Paris, London, Villiers le Bel and Poznan as well as networks such as CEMR, ALDA, Genre et Ville, all willing to share a wealth of knowledge about driving this agenda at a local level.


Recommended Action For Cities #16: Take Action – Don’t be Afraid to Pilot and Test Different Initiatives

Whether an initiative is successful or not can vary from city to city, with different cultures, values and infrastructures coming into play. Initiatives designed to make cities safer for women can be rolled out or tested in stages in certain neighbourhoods. This allows local authorities to test the feasibility of a particular initiative before rolling it out for the entire city. In Paris, for instance, the “Entre Deux Arrêts” initiative allowed women to request being let off buses between stops after hours to lessen the distance of walking late at night. The project has begun as a pilot project and is being tested in certain areas to determine its effectiveness.

All pictures used are Creative Commons images (from top to bottom):