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Ask Questions About Women's Safety in the City

Last edited: October 30, 2010

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Even though it is often true that women and girls in different cities face similar problems, the relative importance of each safety problem will be different for women and girls in different places. Sometimes, this is called “a geography of violence”. For example, women in New Delhi, India, and women in Vancouver, Canada, both experience sexual harassment. However, in New Delhi, sexual harassment may be more of a safety concern for women than gang violence, while in Vancouver, gang violence may be a more important safety concern than sexual harassment.  In any case, do not assume that the problems another city is facing are the same as one’s own.

In carrying out a situation analysis, partners designing a safe cities for women programme might consider the following questions:

  • What kinds of spaces in the city or community do women and girls use?
  • What kinds of spaces in the community do women and girls avoid? Why?
  • What times of day or night do women and girls go out most often? What times of day or night do women and girls go out least often? Why?
  • Do women and girls go out alone, or in groups, or in the company of men?
  • Do women and girls stay in spaces and use them, or just move through them?
  • What kinds of activities do women and girls perform when they use spaces?
  • What kinds of experiences of violence or insecurity do women and girls have in the city or community? When and where are they most likely to experience such violence?
  • Which forms of violence and insecurity are deemed most common/priority? Are there gender-specific forms of violence against women and girls (e.g. sexual harassment, sexual assault), or is the concern mostly generalized violence (e.g. theft, other)?
  • Which groups of women in the city or community most often experience violence or insecurity?
  • What regulatory policies, programmes and practices relating to violence against women, insecurity, and crime already exist in the city or community?
  • If regulatory policies, programmes and practices already exist, what forms of violence and crime against women do they target? Are there forms of violence and crime against women that they do not address?
  • Of the policies, programmes and practices that do exist, which ones can most effectively help women and girls be more secure in the city or community? How can these be expanded?
  • Of the policies, programmes and practices that do exist, which ones are least effective in helping women and girls be more secure in the city or community? How can these be improved or replaced?
  • Which safety issue/s require the most attention? Be sure to include the needs of vulnerable groups such as seniors, women with disabilities and women from ethnic minorities.
  • Are there differences of opinion and perspectives among the key stakeholders on the relative importance of women’s safety and the issues identified as priority? (For instance, government officials might consider that women’s safety is not a priority, while older citizens might view it as the community’s top priority.) Explore whether or not the attitudes and opinions of different actors are related to available and anecdotal evidence of safety problems and of the perceptions and actual experiences reported by women and girls. (This will later relate to advocacy priorities to ensure mobilization of the necessary support.)
  • Are there existing programmes and services tailored for women and/or girls that are gender-responsive on these specific priority issue/s? If so, what is missing and what can be done to improve them?
  • How much time is needed to work on this effort?


Conduct a Safety Audit.

The women’s safety audit is a leading tool originally designed by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) in Toronto for women to use in order to build their skills and make their communities feel safer. Over the past twenty years, the women’s safety audit has been used in communities and neighbourhoods from Petrozavodsk, Russia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The safety audit has been adapted to multiple settings and groups, carried out jointly with local government representatives, and evaluated, such that this tool is now internationally-recognized as a ‘best practice’.

There are three main principles which guide women’s safety audits:

1) Women are considered experts on their own environment and safety;

2) Safety audits encourage local and context-specific solutions to issues of insecurity; and

3) Safety audits promote partnerships and joint solutions between women and their local governments.

Benefits: Some of the benefits that have been reported by those using the women’s safety audit tool include: changes to the physical environment to improve safety for women and the community as a whole; changes in local programmes and policies that enhance their promotion of safety for women and the community in general; more funding and positive publicity for organizations and communities involved in women’s safety audits; more skills and confidence for women who participate in audits; and greater public awareness of women’s safety issues (Lambrick and Travers, 2008).

Process: Usually, a women’s safety audit starts with a group of women, and possibly other community members, who meet and discuss spaces in their community that feel unsafe. Safety audit groups generally work best when members are diverse and therefore represent a variety of safety concerns (i.e. younger and older women, disabled women, women from different ethnic backgrounds) (WISE, 2005, page 13). Unsafe spaces might include a shopping centre parking lot, a pathway between residences, a water source, or a public housing development. After the safety audit group has chosen an unsafe space, they go together to that space and note the factors or characteristics that they think make it unsafe (usually with the help of a premade checklist). Factors or characteristics that make a space feel unsafe might include poor lighting, negative graffiti messages, or an isolated location. Once a safety audit has been completed, the group makes a series of recommendations to their local government and other community members to try and improve the space.


Safety Audit Checklist*

This checklist is taken from: Regional Programme “Cities without violence against women, safe cities for all” UNIFEM – Latin American Women and Habitat Network – AECID. Available in English and Spanish.


Day: ?Mon ?Tues ?Wed ?Thurs ?Fri ?Sat ?Sun




Specific Location:

Audited by (Full name):


For you, what five words best describe the place?

2) SEE and BE SEEN

a. What is the lighting like?

Very good ? good ? satisfactory ? poor ? very poor?

b. Is the lighting distributed evenly? ? yes ? no

c. Are all the lights working? yes? no?

Mark on the map the location of the lights that do not work.

d. Are you able to identify the face of a person 25 meters away? yes? no?

e. Is the lighting obscured by trees, bushes, structures, or posts? yes? no?

Please explain:

f. How is the lighting on pedestrian walkways and sidewalks?

Very good ? good ? satisfactory ? poor ? very poor ? there is none

g. How is the lighting at the entrance of homes and buildings?

Very good ? good ? satisfactory ? poor ? very poor ? there is none

h. How many people can normally be seen circulating in this place?

i. During the morning:

None ? some ? various ? many?

j. During the afternoon:

None ? some ? various ? many?

k. During the evening (until 11:00 PM hrs):

None ? some ? various ? many?

l. During the night (after 11:00 PM hrs):

None ? some ? various ? many?

m. Can you clearly see what is up ahead? ? yes ? no

If not, why?

bushes / trees ? walls ? hills ? sharp (blind) corners? other______________________

Mark these obstacles on the map.

n. Are there places where someone could hide without being seen?

? between trash containers ? abandoned machinery or utility sheds ? alleys or lanes

? recessed doorways or entrances ? construction sites ? overgrown brush and weeds

? others:_______________________

Identify possible entrapment sites on the map, indicating them with the letter E.

o. What would make it easier to see this place?

? transparent materials (i.e.: glass) ? remove vehicles ? angled corners ? trim trees and bushes ? install security mirrors Others: ______________________

p. How easy is to predict the route you will take?

? very easy ? easy ? not very easy ? no way of knowing

q. Can you take alternative routes that are well lit? ? yes ? no ? don’t know

r. Can you take alternative routes that are well travelled?

Yes ? no ? don’t know Comments: _____________________

s. How easy would it be to escape to a safe place if you needed to?

Very easy ? easy ? not very easy ? don’t know

t. Is there more than one escape route? Yes ? no ? don’t know


a. What is in the area surrounding this place?

Factories ? offices ? vacant lots ? stores ? restaurants ? wooded areas?

Residential houses ? streets with busy traffic ? don’t know ? others:

b. How far away is the nearest person that could hear you if you were to call for help? (specify distance: i.e. meters, blocks, etc.) __________________________


a. How far away are emergency services, security personnel, or police available? (specify distance, i.e.: meters, blocks, etc.) ______________________________

b. Is the area patrolled by police or security personnel? ? yes ? no ? don’t know

If yes, how frequently?

Every hour ? one per afternoon/evening ? don’t know Comments: ___________


a. Are there signs or maps identifying where you are? (street, building, neighbourhood, etc.)

yes? no?

b. Are there signs indicating where to seek assistance in the case of an emergency?

yes? no? If yes, are they clearly visible? During the day: yes ? no? At night: yes? no?

c. What is your overall impression of the signage in this place?

Very good ? good ? satisfactory ? poor ? very poor?

d. Are there any signals or signs that should be added or changed? Which ones?


a. What is your impression of the overall design of the place?

Very good ? good ? satisfactory ? poor ? very poor?

b. If you weren’t familiar with this place, would it be easy to find your way around? ? yes ? no

c. As it is now, does this place allow you to carry out the activities for which it was built? (i.e., a plaza) ? yes ? no

d. How well is the place maintained?

Very well ? well ? satisfactorily ? poorly ? very poorly?

e. Does this place seem cared for? ? yes ? no Why?_______________________

f. Is there litter lying around? yes? no?

g.I s there graffiti, or racist and/or sexist images or slogans on the walls?

Yes? no? If yes, describe them:

h. Are there signs of intentional damage or destruction?

Play equipment ? light bulbs ? signs or signals ? public transport shelters others________________________

i. Are there any important repairs that need to be made?

Yes ? no What exactly?____________________________________________

j. From your experience, how long do repairs take from the time they are reported?

A long period of time ? a short period of time ? don’t know Comments: ______________________________

k. In regards to bus transport:

Which bus lines service this place?

How frequent do they run?

During the day….format issue/see below under l

At night….same…format issue

How far is one bus stop from the next?

Normally, if you are arriving at night, will the bus driver make stops between bus stops at your request? yes or no?

l. In regards to car services and taxis:

Do they enter the neighbourhood frequently?

During the day yes ? no?  At night ? yes ? no If no, why not?

If you call them at night, will they come? yes? no?  sometimes?


a. Are there social and cultural activities that take place in this neighbourhood? yes or no Please, explain: ____________________________

Who participates in these activities? ____________________________

Of these activities, which make you feel safer? ______________________

Which make you feel less safe? ____________________________

b. Are there community-based organizations and groups that are concerned about the neighbourhood and its people?

yes or no Which ones?______________________________________________

How do you feel about these organizations/groups?___________________

c. Do you have friends or neighbours in the area you could count on in an emergency?

yes or no?

d. Is the population of the area changing? yes or no If yes, how?___________________________________

e. Are there people in with disabilities or special needs who have trouble getting around?

elderly? persons pushing a baby stroller? persons in wheelchairs or using walkers? visually impaired? hearing impaired? Others_____________________

f. Are there public institutions that you know of in the area?

yes or no. Which ones? ______________________________

How do you feel about these public institutions? _____________________


a. What improvements would you like to see in the place we audited?

b. What improvements would you like to see in terms of cooperative living and social relations in the neighbourhood? ____________________________________________________________

c. What could you contribute personally to implementing these proposals?


a. What neighbourhood situations make you feel afraid?__________________________________

b. What neighbourhood situations make you feel safer?__________________________________

* This material has been adapted from the Safety Audit developed by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women and Children (METRAC). 1989. Ontario, Canada.



Safety Audit Checklist for Working with Immigrant and Refugee Women, and minority groups

The checklist below resulted from an initiative in Canada to update the Women's Safety Audit Guide, tailored to issues faced by immigrant and refugee women, and considering auditing policies, practices and services in that regard. The women consulted related experiences about not feeling safe or comfortable when using a public service because they were treated rudely, ignored or subjected to humiliating and insulting comments and questions about their race, language, culture and religion. They suggested the following questions as a means to evaluate how safe or comfortable immigrant and/or refugee women feel when interacting with public and government services providers:

1. As a person of a minority race, culture, language, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, or religion, do I feel that I am treated fairly by people in the following institutions?

O Security guards, police, firefighters

O Social/Health Services providers

O Legal service and Court House staff

O Public transit officials (bus, taxi, etc.)

O Sales people/Businesses representatives

O Recreation/Community centre staff

O School personnel/administrators

O Immigration officials

O Employment/Placement centre staff

O Parking/Building maintenance personnel

O Other (s)

2. Are my children treated fairly by peers, teachers and school administrators?

[] yes [] no

3. Do I feel that there are materials used in classrooms or in media advertising that are offensive/insensitive of cultural and racial differences?

[] yes [] no

4. Do I sometimes feel that I am exploited by people in authority because it is assumed that I do not know Canadian Law or my rights as a citizen?

[] yes [] no

5. Do I witness or am I subjected to rude and offensive remarks and behaviors, aggressive or intimidating body language, or being ignored?

[] yes [] no

Source: Immigrant and Refugee Women Audit, see page 45 (Appendix E) of Women’s Initiatives for Safer Environments (WISE, 2005). Women’s Community Safety Audit Guide: Safety for Women, Safety for Everyone, Let’s Act on It! Ottawa: WISE. Available in English.

Example: Gender Safety Audits for Public Spaces and Proposals for Safe Urban Spaces (2010). This report, produced by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and INTACH, Delhi Chapter, provides an example of how the findings from women's safety audits can be packaged and presented to the public and municipal officials.  Maps of problem areas, design solutions, questionnaire results are presented in an attractive and easy-to-understand manner. Available in English.



Adaptation of the Safety Audit

The safety audit tool has been changed over time to suit the needs of different groups of women and different contexts. In some cases, the language has been made simpler. In other cases, examples and procedures have been tailored to be more compatible with realities in rural areas. In other cases still, completely new audit guides have been made for specific spaces – such as university campuses.

In addition to these changes, different audit groups have taken different approaches to conducting women’s safety audits. Some groups, such as Jagori in India, have used map-making skills to map the characteristics of unsafe spaces (Jagori, 2007). Other groups, like the Somali Women’s Neighbourhood Health and Safety Group in the UK, have used one-on-one interviews with members of the community (Cavanagh, 1998, page 60). Other approaches that have been used within the women’s safety audit include creating scale models of spaces (Cavanaugh, 1998, 16), activity observation (Cavanaugh, 1998, 18), public surveys (Evans and Dame, 1999, 11), photography (WISE, 2005, 19), and public presentations using storyboards (Phaure, 2004, 11).

As a result of these adaptations, the kinds of recommendations that have been made by women’s safety audit groups have varied substantially from the recommendations made when the tool was first created. These recommendations include, for example:

  • A heavy focus on physical environmental changes, such as improved street lighting and visibility (Toronto in 1989).
  • A focus on socio-economic considerations, such as the creation of safer living spaces for women, an increased focus on health, and job creation in Dar el Salaam, Tanzania (Mtani, 2002).
  • For increased public transit in Paris, France (Lieber, 2002).


Remember that women and girls are the best sources of information on when and where they feel safe.

It is very important to obtain information from women and girls about what factors make them feel insecure. This information may differ based on different experiences, so it is important to consult a variety of different women. However, it may be difficult to engage local women and girls because they are too busy or they do not feel comfortable/safe/entitled/interested to participate in this kind of activity (especially if they belong to one or more marginalized populations). To overcome this challenge, allow women and girls to take the lead and communicate in whatever ways make them feel most comfortable. Using a variety of communication tactics can be useful. Different tactics can include holding interviews or focus groups, conducting surveys, making art about insecure experiences, and so on.

 EXAMPLE: CNN Report: Delhi Most Unsafe for Women, finds UN Survey, Delhi, India.                                   In partnership with UN-HABITAT, Delhi-based women’s organization Jagori produced a large-scale survey on women’s safety. The results of this survey, based primarily on women’s experiences in public spaces, produced important and powerful information that garnered attention from elected officials and international media. This CNN news report demonstrates an effective use of information on women’s experiences of safety/insecurity. Available in English.  



Case Study: Focus Group Discussions, Rosario, Argentina

Focus group discussions were held over the course of two months to better understand the distinct forms of violence that women experience in cities. The aim of these discussions was to assess different perspectives on violence in general, and specifically on violence experienced by women. Discussions focused on the following themes related to violence against women in the city: gender, age and vulnerability; state and civil society positions vis-à-vis related issues, including of the security sector, academics and the availability of expertise, and the role of women’s organizations. Different methodologies were used to introduce the themes in each focus group. Specifically, themes were introduced to participants through written statements, questionnaires, pictures (photos of the city, drawings illustrating violent situations, etc.), and personal testimonies. The “mapping” technique was also used. Focus group participants reflected on their personal day-to-day experiences in their own neighbourhoods and in the city to identify dangerous places. Participants also explained why they perceived these places as beingdangerous. The focus groups were organized by CISCSA – Flora Tristán, under a grant of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, in 2004 in Rosario, Argentina.

For more information on holding safe and accessible meetings for women and girls, see the Mobilizing Communities to create Safe Cities and Communities for Women and Girls section in Main Strategies for Safe Cities and Communities.





‘Precautions and Avoidances’ in Women and Community Safety: A Resource Book on Planning for Safer Communities, Dame, T. and A. Grant (Cowichan Women Against Violence Society, 2002): pages 2 – 12. This tool helps to guide facilitation of women’s groups on their experiences of safety and insecurity in their communities. The group of women think about, write down, and discuss how their daily routines are constrained by insecurity, using concrete examples. Available in English and French.

Focus Group Guide (2009). This guide, produced by the Gender Inclusive Cities Programme funded by the UN Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence Against Women and administered by Women in Cities International (WICI)” provides instructions for safe cities for women programme partners to hold focus groups with women (usually 8 – 12 participants). The aim of the focus group is toincrease understanding of what makes women feel safe or unsafe in public spaces in cities, and how their safety could be improved”. Instructions and helpful hints are given to help with choosing/involving participants, facilitating/moderating the focus group, choosing a venue, introducing the discussion, conducting the discussion, and recording and reporting the results of the discussion. Available in English.

Handling the day-to-day problems of informal workers (n.d.).

 This tool, created by Christine Bonner for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), is directed towards those actors who work with informal workers on a close basis.  The tool provides information on the kinds of problems informal workers face, including problems relating to gender and safety. Then recommendations are provided on how to work with informal workers in a five-step process: 1. Hear the Story 2. Analyse the Situation 3. Proble More Deeply 4. Find Out More 5. Decide What to Do. Real-life examples are provided for illustration. Available in English.

‘Diagnóstico local y participativo centrado en las experiencias de mujeres’ (Local and Participatory Diagnosis Centered on Women’s Experience) in Herramientas para la promoción de ciudades seguras desde la perspectiva de género (Tools for the Promotion of Safe Cities from the Gender Perspective). (Rainero, L., M. Rodrigou and S. Pérez, 2006). CISCSA – Centro de Intercambio y Servicios Cono Sur, Argentina: pages 59 – 67. This tool was created by CISCSA under the auspices of the UNIFEM-supported Regional Programme on Safe Cities. It includes background information, indicators, and methodologies for diagnosing safety issues for women and girls. Methodologies include surveys, safety audits, indicators, maps of women’s perception of insecurity, and focus groups. This guide is intended to be used by municipal governments and women’s organizations. Available in English, Portuguese and Spanish.

Women’s Safety Audits: What Works and Where? (2008). This report, produced by Women in Cities International, UN-HABITAT and Sida, is an example of a summary of evaluations to date on the women’s safety audit tool. The report begins with a literature review of evaluation of women’s safety audits. The literature review covers practices that work and positive outcomes that have been recorded about the women’s safety audit, as well as practices that do not work and negative outcomes. The literature review also discusses evaluation questions, and recommendations that have come up in material about the women’s safety audit. In addition to the literature review, this report also gives the results of in-depth surveys with groups who have undergone the women’s safety audit. Survey results provide further evaluation information on the successes and challenges of different aspects and adaptations of the tool. As a whole, the report is meant to provide information on how the women’s safety audit tool has been used thus far, and possibilities for its use in the future. It is directed at any group or government wishing to initiate a women’s safety audit in their community. The report is available in English.

A Handbook on Women's Safety Audits in Low-income Urban Neighbourhoods: A Focus on Essential Services (2010). This handbook provides guidance for women's groups, urban planners, community organizations and other urban residents on conducting a women's safety audit in low-income areas. This safety audit guide places particular emphasis on using the methodology to assess women's safety in relation to their access to essential services. The handbook breaks down the women's safety audit process into six steps: rapid situational analysis; interviews with key stakeholders; focus group discussions; in-depth interviews; conducting safety audits; and follow-up activities. Available in English.

Together for Women's Safety: Creating Safer Communities for Marginalised Women and for Everyone (2010). This publication, produced by Women in Cities International, highlights a Canadian project on women's safety which was conducted with groups of marginalised women in four cities (Aboriginal women in Regina, Saskatchewan; women with disabilities in Montreal, Quebec; elderly women in Gatineau, Quebec and immigrant and visible minority women in Peel, Ontario). Together for Women's Safety provides detailed information on project planning and goals, as well as lessons learned and challenges (in relation to the processes of adapting and conducting women's safety audits and partnering with local governments). Available in French and English.

Crossing Barriers, Breaking Divides: Making Delhi a Safer Place for Youth in a Resettlement Colony:  Madanpur Khadar, Delhi (2010). This publication, created by Jagori, documents the process of conducting safety audits with youths (both boys and girls) in a resettlement colony. Here the safety audit process has been adapted to young people's needs and to an urban setting where basic services, such as water and santitation, are a major planning concern. The process and results of this project are described with a focus on mapping and training; critical sensitization of key stakeholders, and youth capacity-building. Results are disaggregated by gender. This publication also provides a guide for conducting a safety audit with youths in a resettlement area. Available in English

Walking our Neighbourhoods, Building Cities Free from Violence: Training material for neighbours to conduct participatory baseline assessments of their neighbourhoods so as to improve their habitability and social ties (Rodigou, M., with the collaboration of M. Nazar, 2008). CISCSA - Centro de Intercambio y Servicios Cono Sur – Argentina.  Resources included: Guide available in English and Spanish; Safety Audit Checklist available in English and Spanish; Workshop Photos/Fotos Taller; Video available in English, Spanish and French.

Women’s Safety Audit Guide: Safety for Women, Safety for Everyone, Let’s Act on It! (Women’s Initiatives for Safer Environments, 2005). WISE. Available in English.

Women and Community Safety: A Resource Book on Planning for Safer Communities (Cowichan Women Against Violence Society, 2002). Cowichan Women Against Violence Society. Available in English and French

Cowichan Valley Safety Audit Guide (Cowichan Women Against Violence Society, 1999). Cowichan Women Against Violence Society. Available in English.

Guide d'enquête sur la sécurité des femmes en ville (Guide for Investigating Women’s Safety in Cities) (City of Montreal, 1993). Ville de Montréal.  Available in French.

Guide de réalisation d’un marche exploratoire (Safety Audit Guide) (Ville de Lévis, Québec, no date). Available in French.

METRAC’s Safety Audit Kit (Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC, no date). Available for purchase in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Punjabi and Tamil from METRAC.

Making Safer Places: A Resource Book for Neighbourhood Safety Audits (Cavanagh, S., 1998). Women’s Design Service. Available for purchase in English.

La marche exploratoire… Une façon simple d'amélorer la sécurité dans votre mileu (The Safety Audit… A Simple Way to Increase Security in your Area) (Commission Femmes Ville de Québec, no date).  Available in French

Sécurité des Lieux: Guide d'évaluation (Secure Places: Evaluation Guide) (Fédération des Infirmières et Infirmiers du Québec, 2003). Available in French.

Kelowna Planning for Safer Communities Workshop (Dame, T. and A. Grant, 2001). Cowichan Valley Safer Futures Program.  Available in English.