The world is aflame with the issue of ending violence against women and girls. Civil society and women's groups across the globe are taking to the streets, dancing as a political act, erupting in protest. Policymakers, planners and the media are taking notice and taking notes.
History will point to the brutal rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in December 2012 as the trigger for unprecedented global outrage. This tragedy will be named the spark that ignited the fire and, we can hope, that led to changing the staggering statistics (warning: graphic description of sexual violence) surrounding gender-based violence, particularly the violence that happens in public spaces.
While ending public violence against women and girls has finally occupied the mainstream, women know, and have known, that the issue is not merely ending violence — it's expanding our definition of what violence means, creating safer spaces, and collectively building responsibility for those spaces.
Public violence is not limited to rape or harassment. Any woman who has limited her movement, subconsciously or consciously, has experienced violence in the form of insecurity, fear and oppression.
When we talk about ending violence against women and girls, we are not talking about merely reducing the statistics. We are talking about shifting collective consciousness and, ultimately, shifting power.
Public violence is not limited to rape or harassment. Any woman who has limited her movement, subconsciously or consciously — a quickened pace crossing certain streets, a flash in her mind as she chooses her seat on the bus, a tighter squeeze of her child's hand as she walks them home — has experienced violence in the form of insecurity, fear and subjugation. These are built into the very infrastructures of the built environments that women must navigate on a daily basis.
As One Billion Rising has demonstrated, raising awareness is a vital piece of creating change, but it doesn't address the structural oppression that leads to violence in the first place. More importantly, raising awareness would be neither possible nor effective without the organising work that women have been doing at the grassroots level for decades.
From surrounding neighbours' houses where abuse is taking place and banging pots and pans in the Philippines, to reclaiming street corners through theatre performances about their experiences of violence in Jamaica, to carrying caskets through their neighborhoods to raise awareness on gender-based violence in Peru, grassroots women are working on the ground, day by day, block by block to shift consciousness. They are building partnerships with local authorities and decision makers. For instance, walking together armed with pencils and clipboards, women have been conducting safety audits (a methodology developed by Huairou Commission member network Women in Cities International) to assess the areas where they feel unsafe and use these observations to develop specific recommendations for changing their environments. They have been monitoring public policy and budgets. By becoming part of the planning process, they are creating partnerships to shift power.
An example of powerful partnerships can be seen in agreements being reached today, February 19, by grassroots women's groups, feminist organisations, and local authorities as part of a Global Day of Action for Safer Cities. In more than 50 cities around the world from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Harare, Zimbabwe women and local authorities are sitting down to sign agreements for concrete actions that will make cities safer, as identified by the women themselves. These actions are taking place across both the Global South and the Global North, since despite media portrayals of the Delhi incident violence is not contained to one or the other. For instance, Zimbabwe Parents of Handicapped Children Association will sign a commitment with the Mayor of Harare to clear areas with long grasses, install street lights, deploy police in dangerous areas and allocate market stalls to grassroots women. In Washington DC, Stop Street Harassment and Collective Action for Safe Spaces will meet with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority about sexual harassment on buses and the subway system.
Partnerships don't end after February 19, and this is exactly the point: to create commitments for longer-term engagement on women's safety. As the women's movement rides the wave of public awareness from the One Billion Rising campaign, concrete agreements provide a pathway from awareness to implementation. The United Nations 57th Commission on the Status of Women in New York on 4-15 March, whose priority theme is the elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls, will provide space to analyse commitments made and strategise next steps.
In more than 50 cities around the world from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Harare, Zimbabwe women and local authorities are sitting down to sign agreements for concrete actions that will make cities safer, as identified by the women themselves.
Over the coming weeks, the Huairou Commission and The Global Urbanist are adding to this global dialogue with this series of articles highlighting the voices of women from Delhi and beyond discussing the intersections between urban public spaces and violence against women and girls, and how violence can be and is being eliminated in cities around the world. We begin this week with Pamela Ransom introducing the Sistren Theatre Collective in Kingston, Jamaica, who uses the performing arts to raise awareness about violence and safety in local communities, and Mukta Naik describing how urbanists, activists and authorities have been working together to create safer public spaces in Delhi and Gurgaon in the wake of recent attacks.