Asia's Dark Alleys: Making Cities Safer for Women

Feature | 28 October 2013

Local authorities are looking for ways to make Asian cities safer for women, including lighting their streets, upgrading restrooms and training officials.

Sometimes it is a broken street light or a neglected public bathroom. Other times it is a darkened pathway to a bus stop or an ignorant police officer.

These are a few of the elements that make a city dangerous for women. Government officials around Asia are increasingly looking to better understand how to make their cities safer for women through complex urban re-structuring as well as simple fixes.

The need for solutions is urgent. According to the United Nations, women in developing countries are twice as likely as men to be victims of urban violence. The problem is particularly acute in rapidly urbanizing Asia.

In South Asia, where a series of violent incidents against women has put a spotlight on the issue, the number of people living in cities is projected to grow from 549 million in 2010 to 875 million in 2030, according to the report Gender and Urban Poverty in South Asia.

An atmosphere of fear

Women are particularly vulnerable to the risks associated with urban poverty, according to Rashmi Singh, executive director of National Resource Center for Women in India.

These risks are heightened by infrastructure problems, such as public toilets that are dark with broken doors and no attendants, poorly lit areas, and a lack of safe and efficient public transportation.

Public spaces that are dominated by men often make women feel unsafe and unwelcome, even when passing nearby. This is exacerbated by the tolerance of sexual harassment, which makes women feel threatened, and the trivialization by some poorly trained police officers toward complaints by women.

In addition to outright violence, these problems also create an atmosphere of fear for women. This can restrict their access to employment and education opportunities.

Global movement

Addressing these issues has gone beyond the work of city leaders. It has become a global movement.

World leaders are factoring in violence against women as they look to formulate the development goals that will succeed the Millennium Development Goals after 2015, said Krishna Tirath, India's Minister of State for Women and Child Development, during the recent seminar, Safe Cities For Women - Reclaiming Public Spaces, held at the Asian Development Bank's headquarters in Manila.

What makes a city safe for women?

The Safer Cities Program, organized by UN-HABITAT, calls for officials in developing countries to prevent crime and violence against women - including both public harassment and abuse within the home - through the use of advocacy and training.

This effort includes improving the city's physical environment, including better street lighting and safer transportation options, developed with the consultation and participation of women in the community.

To address the attitudes that tolerate the harassment of women, cities are encouraged to including gender sensitization training in their crime prevention programs, and the development of services specifically for women affected by violence.