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Safe public spaces

Last edited: July 08, 2020

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The impact of violence against women and girls in cities, including its economic costs, is significant.[1] Available data suggest that the vast majority of women have experienced some form of unwanted sexual attention or sexual harassment in public spaces (European Parliament, 2018; UN Women 2015a). Women and girls regularly experience sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in public spaces – on the streets, in and around public transport hubs, schools, workplaces, water distribution sites, public toilets and parks. Moreover, many women street traders and vendors in open markets face violence and harassment on a daily basis. Therefore, the provision of safe public spaces and safe transport are key elements to ensure women’s wellbeing, including in the world of work.

Safe public spaces are closely connected to the provision of gender-responsive public services. For example, the growth of urbanization across the world, coupled with unprecedented levels of informal settlements and a significant increase in informal employment, means that “…cities provide sites for a range of gendered, intersectional, injustices, such as those in informal settlements and in the workplaces of informal workers” (Cities Alliance, 2017, p.6). Safe public spaces that enable women to move freely without fear of violence and harassment are essential, because they promote women’s independence and participation in work and community life. 

Gender differences need to be taken into account in the planning of cities and transport, as part of gender-responsive city planning and service provision.   

“Sexual harassment in public spaces is widespread and often normalised, taking place in crowded places or under the influence of alcohol consumption, sometimes reinforced by cultural values which celebrate hyper-masculinity.” (European Parliament, 2018, p.9)

Women face increased risks of violence and harassment where there is poor infrastructure, limited sanitary facilities, a lack of street lighting or unsafe neighbourhoods. Also, a lack of policing impacts on women’s mobility, particularly when they have to walk home at night in unsafe and unlit areas or rely on unsafe transport. Investments in public services, infrastructure and support services was identified as being crucial for garment workers in Cambodia, particularly as this is a group of workers who frequently face risks of violence – including rape and other forms of sexual assault - when they travel to and from work (Action Aid, 2015; UNDP 2009 and UN Women 2017b).

“My home is far away from my workplace. It is also dark and there is no authority who can protect us.”

Kunthea, a 30-year-old woman garment worker in Cambodia (Action Aid, 2017, p.21).

Making cities and public spaces safe for women has been the objective of a UN Women Global Flagship Initiative “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces” developed in partnership with women’s rights organizations, local governments and UN partners. There are currently over 35 initiatives in developed and developing countries across the world working to ensure that women and girls are economically, socially, and politically empowered in public spaces (including markets) which are free from sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence (UN Women, 2015c and 2011a). In India, campaigns by the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) contributed to the introduction of legislation, which recognizes the rights of street vendors and protects street vendors’ rights through a registration process for vendors and statutory bargaining committees (Government of India, 2012).

Promising practices in creating safe public spaces suggest the following practical steps can be taken (Jagori, UN Women et al, 2011):

  • Define and understand specific local problems, including physical factors (such as safety of streets, street lighting, toilets) and social factors (expectations about women in public spaces, beliefs about seriousness of sexual harassment, and social status of women in economic and political roles).
  • Improve access to existing policies and programs contributing to safety or lack of safety and take steps to cover the availability of basic services.
  • Create partnerships with stakeholders in order to find tailor-made solutions to particular problems in the community.
  • Plan and implement interventions, such as urban planning and design of public spaces; provision and management of public infrastructure and services; public transport; policing; legislation, justice and support to victims; education; civic awareness and participation.[2]
  • Ensure monitoring and evaluation for each intervention.

Safety audits are a further practical tool to evaluate safety of public spaces. They can help to pinpoint unsafe areas faced by mobile women workers, such as:  women bus drivers or mobile health workers; women who work in markets or in street settings; or workers who travel late into the night.  

Promising practices in carrying out safety audits can include the following steps (Jagori, UN Women et al, 2011):

  • Recording the state of facilities such as:  roads and pavements; signage and maps; vacant areas; street lighting and public toilets; proximity to security guards or police;
  • Recording what leads to a lack of safety;
  • Making recommendations for interventions for safer spaces and improved services;
  • Presenting recommendations to relevant authorities and disseminating, communicating and advocating for change.

Safe cities and safe public spaces

Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading Project, Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town, South Africa

In the Khayelitsha Township, a physical upgrading project has become a model for other violence prevention strategies in unsafe urban areas. It has particular relevance to women’s access to and participation in work, including self-employment. In the township, extremely high levels of rape were reported. The physical upgrading of the township took into account the “triangle of violence”, covering urban renewal strategies to reduce risks of violence, criminal justice measures to discourage potential violators, and public health and conflict resolution interventions to support victims of violence. These included the improvement and installation of lighting, closed-circuit television and public telephone systems, public transport and safe walkways, and community involvement in providing safety hubs in dangerous areas. A number of specific anti-rape strategies were introduced, including establishing rape crisis centres and counselling services, self-defence training and community awareness-raising. Police received training, and their presence was increased in dangerous locations. Finally, jobs and services were brought closer to residents. Between April 2008 and March 2009, there was a 20 per cent reduction in violent crime.

Safe markets for women vendors in Papua New Guinea (UN Women, 2014)

In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, a safe market programme led to new safety initiatives being introduced for women market traders and vendors. Women make up 80 per cent of market vendors in Port Moresby; a scoping[3] study revealed that over 90 per cent of women and girls have experienced some form of sexual violence when accessing public transportation, and 55 per cent of women market vendors had experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence in the markets where they worked (UN Women, 2014). Sexual harassment, sexual violence and extortion were common, and further risks occurred when women were displaced from the market premises and forced to sit by busy road sides to sell their vegetables. Women’s safety and health were also affected by inadequate storage facilities, lack of running water and toilets. Women faced harassment from market security and police. Poor street lighting and unsafe public transport increase their vulnerability when travelling home.

The initiatives included strengthening the role of police at the markets, safer lighting, toilets and transport infrastructure, and a city-wide behaviour change programme. Associations have been established with 50 per cent or more representation of women in executive positions at varying times, which has helped to prioritise women’s safety measures. Appropriate training and capacity building in law enforcement institutions and among community leaders has also contributed to empowering women. In one of Port Moresby’s main markets, the Geheru market, the project developed strong participation of women vendors through vendors’ associations, safety measures, and upgrading its infrastructure. A library and children’s park were built for the many children who accompany their mothers to the market. 

The Port Moresby Safe City Free from Violence against Women and Girls Programme is implemented by UN Women in partnership with the local authority, the police, women’s organizations, vendors and customers.

Action Aid’s Safe Cities for Women – implementing gender-responsive public services in Brazil (Action Aid International, 2017)

Action Aid’s Safe Cities for Women campaign addresses violence against women in urban public spaces, by promoting gender-responsive public services and gender-responsive urban planning. Action Aid’s evaluation of women’s safety in urban spaces in Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, Liberia, Nepal, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe found that women do not fully enjoy safety despite commitments to ending gender-based violence by governments. A focus on safe public transport systems is necessary to enable “…women and girls to be able to exercise their right to freedom of movement and enjoy and use their cities’ services without the threat of exclusion, sexual violence or harassment” (Action Aid International, 2017, p.5).

In Brazil, the development of gender-responsive public services, particularly transport and urban planning provided by local government, were prioritized, as they are crucial in ensuring women’s safety in public places, including when travelling to and from work. ActionAid and its partners initially held seminars with the managers of the Women’s Secretariats in seven local government areas, with the aim of building an alliance linking the local government areas to campaign for better gender-responsive public policies in cities. It has held meetings with representatives from different sectors – including public lighting, security, transport, urban planning and finance – to put gender-responsive urban planning on the agenda of all involved.

In the city of Garanhuns in Pernambuco, a public policy plan has been launched called “The City We Want is Safe for Women”. With local public service providers, the aim is to strengthen special women’s courts to deal with violence against women; increasing the number of police stations; police training on gender awareness; improvement in public transport (allowing women to choose where they want to get off buses after nightfall); investment in infrastructure, including increased and improved street lighting; and training on gender and violence against women in schools. There have been reduced rates of violence against women, for example, by improving street lighting on public transport.

Women’s City: An innovative approach for violence against women and girls services and response[4]

In El Salvador, “Women’s City” empowers women through the provision of integrated services, including services for victims of violence, under one roof: Women’s City Centers. Combining several services in the same location saves time and resources.  It allows for greater quality and delivery of services, as these follow a chain of service provision coordinated throughout the institution. Women also participate in activities to gain economic independence, thus increasing their options for leaving situations of violence. The inter-institutional coordination among the service providers in the centers also increases opportunities for identifying and referring women affected by violence.

Principles of Safe Cities: City of Montreal[5]

The City of Montreal developed “Six Principles of Urban Planning for Safe Cities”, which have been widely used to serve as a useful reference point in evaluating urban planning:

•  Principle 1: Know where you are and where you are going. Signposting.

•  Principle 2: See and be seen. Visibility.

•  Principle 3: Hear and be heard. The presence of people.

•  Principle 4: Be able to escape and get help. Formal surveillance and access to help.

•  Principle 5: Live in a clean and friendly environment. Spatial design and maintenance.

•  Principle 6: Act together. Community participation.


[1] For further information about safe cities programming see: UN Women’s Virtual Knowledge Centre Why focus on safe cities and communities for women and girls? Available at: http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/238-why-focus-on-safe-cities-and-communities-for-women-and-girls.html?next=239.

[2] These areas for intervention were drawn up by UN-Habitat, Dept of Women and Children, Jagori & UN Women (2010) Safe City Free of Violence Against Women and Girls Initiative: A Strategic Framework for Delhi. Delhi, Jagori.

[3] Scoping studies are a method used to comprehensively map evidence across a range of study designs in a specific area, with the aim of informing future programmes and policy.

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