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SOUTH AMERICA: Flushing Public Gender Violence Out of the Shadows

Marcela Valente*

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 22 2006 (IPS) - Their behaviour is shifting almost imperceptibly, but as women grow increasingly fearful of their safety, their movement in the cities of South America has become ever more restricted – especially at night.

Unfortunately, media coverage only proves that their fears of being robbed, beaten, raped or having their children kidnapped are all too real, convincing many women to take cover in their homes.

Recent studies conducted by non-governmental organisations in the eastern Argentine city of Rosario and two poor districts of Lima showed that urban violence, although perceived as a generalised problem, has some effects specific to women, particularly limiting when and where they go out.

Public safety is on the agenda at the World Urban Forum, which opened Monday in the Canadian city of Vancouver and runs through Friday. The forum is examining ways to meet a commitment assumed by the United Nations General Assembly six years ago, as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

The theme of this year’s session, the third since its launch in 1998 by the U.N. Programme for Human Settlement (U.N.-HABITAT), is “Our Future: Sustainable Cities – Turning Ideas into Action.” It drew 15,000 delegates from social organisations, academia and government institutions.

The Argentine study was carried out by the Centre for Exchange and Services for the Southern Cone – Argentina (CICSA), while the Peruvian project was conducted by the Flora Tristán Women’s Centre. Both received support from the U.N. Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence Against Women, established by the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Using different methodologies, the organisations arrived at similar results. “Our study concludes that women are not free to walk the streets at night, unless they are escorted,” Ivonne Macassi, of Flora Tristán, told IPS.

The Peruvian report studied women in the districts of San Juan de Miraflores and Villa El Salvador, Lima’s poorest areas, which have a population of more than one million.

Among the women surveyed by Flora Tristán, 61 percent reported feeling unsafe walking at night, and 50 percent said they were afraid of taking public transit at night, when there are fewer passengers.

“They are not only afraid of being mugged; they’re afraid that robberies could escalate to rape. They do not feel safe even in a taxi or motorcycle-taxi, because attacks have also been reported in those situations,” explained Macassi.

The activist said this kind of violence “is tolerated” because it is invisible. She noted that there are no specific statistics reflecting its prevalence.

To take back public spaces, women require a greater societal awareness of these problems. The studies also make concrete suggestions, such as eliminating untended, overgrown vacant lots, and creating more inclusive parks suitable for more than just street football games.

They also recommend filling in transport security gaps. Rail lines, highways and bridges may seem safe, but they can become deadly for female pedestrians who live far from downtown, according to responses given during the project.

“We set out to uncover the specific gender aspects that are at the root of urban violence against women, but it was difficult to make the problem visible. Lack of safety was always associated with robberies and assaults, which can happen to anyone,” Maite Errodigou, research director at CICSA, told IPS.

“Years ago, the great challenge facing women was exposing the ugly face of domestic violence. We put so much effort into it that, now, when we talk about violence against women, domestic violence is all that springs to mind,” she said. But “even though it is difficult to describe,” public spaces harbour additional threats, she added.

Unlike the Flora Tristán centre, CICSA did not limit its study to women, instead surveying a variety of social groups in Rosario, one of Argentina’s three largest cities, with a population of one million, 350 kilometres north of Buenos Aires in the province of Santa Fe.

“We chose the city of Rosario because it has a Socialist Party government, which has set up a women’s issues department and is open to expanding its sphere of action. And that is exactly what we want – to ensure that the study’s conclusions are taken into account when making public-policy decisions,” emphasised Errodigou.

The first stage entailed 18 dialogue sessions with women (and, to a lesser extent, men) of various ages and from different socioeconomic strata. Participants also included officials, academics, security agents of varying ranks, teens living on the streets and prostitutes.

Each summed up urban violence according to their personal perception. “At first, lack of safety was viewed as one single problem affecting everyone, but when the term ‘violence’ was used, it was associated with specific concepts, such as excessive force by police, economic power or inequality, and from there we were able to break it down in terms of women’s issues,” she said.

The women in the study feared sexual assault the most – from the groping in public transit to rape. “These fears, which are not unreasonable, restrict their movements and hinder their independence in public spaces,” said Errodigou. “Some women, particularly in low-income areas, have quit studying or working certain jobs to avoid having to move around at night.”

Restrictions also stem from within the private area, when women’s partners urge them to stay home to avoid danger, she said.

The research also showed that women are more likely to be hurt during muggings. “Police and other officials who participated in the groups admitted that women are more likely to be beaten because they are weaker, but they had not analysed the reasons behind the attackers’ behaviour,” she pointed out.

In the discussion groups, some women also expressed “guilt” over walking alone at night or wearing certain clothing. Others, generally low-income women, also expressed fears for their children. “If they have to take two or more children, they are afraid one will be snatched from them, which discourages them from going out,” explained Errodigou.

Once the perceptions had been compiled, CICSA held training workshops to analyse possible interventions in public spaces to address women’s fears. The organisation sat down with groups from various government sectors that could have an impact on the issue.. Flora Tristán, in Peru, proceeded with similar sessions.

In Rosario, three main strategies came out of the project’s work: Raise public awareness – particularly among boys and male adolescents – on the need to respect others; intervene in urban-space design and planning processes; and engage state institutions to support specific public policies.

Soon after, the councillors preparing the Rosario government budget included these concepts in their funds-allocation debate, city police requested specific training and the women’s issues department incorporated some of the objectives in its new equal-opportunities plan.

Diana Miloslavich, of Flora Tristán, told IPS that, the study results had led to agreements in the municipalities of San Juan de Miraflores and Villa El Salvador to include urban security strategies specifically designed to protect women.

Now, the project to make cities safe for women has gained momentum. Brazil’s UNIFEM office has proposed extending the movement to Santiago, Chile and Bogotá, Colombia, with an eye to raising the profile of these issues, working with society to prepare strategies, and turning these strategies into public policy.

* With additional reporting by Angel Páez in Peru.

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