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Q&A: Imagining Urban Life Without Catcalls or Rape

Kanya D'Almeida interviews INES ALBERDI, Executive Director of UNIFEM

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 22 2010 (IPS) - The U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) launched an ambitious new initiative to improve the safety and wellbeing of women in five major cities Monday – New Delhi, India; Cairo, Egypt; Quito, Ecuador; Kigali, Rwanda; and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.

Ines Alberdi Credit: Courtesy of UNIFEM

Ines Alberdi Credit: Courtesy of UNIFEM

In an interview with IPS, Ines Alberdi, executive director of UNIFEM, discussed the aspirations and trajectory of the ‘Safe Cities’ initiative, from its humble beginnings as a set of pilot programmes in various cities across Latin America, from Bogotá, Colombia, to Rosario, Argentina and Santiago, Chile.

These programmes were implemented after proposals from grassroots organisations for a comprehensive campaign on safety in cities, a landscape that has become a virtual war zone for millions of women.

Inspired by the programme’s successes in Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, UNIFEM and UN Habitat began to mull the idea of going global. With solid regional bases already in place, UNIFEM has decided to work closely with local governments and municipalities to alter the urban landscape, making it safer for women and girls to navigate.

The populations of the five chosen cities have increased exponentially in the last five decades. Cairo and New Delhi, for example, have swelled from 2.4 and 1.4 million to 17 and 19 million inhabitants respectively. This unprecedented growth has been coupled with an intense proliferation of urban slums, making the Safe Cities initiative a timely and urgent endeavour.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What are the specific challenges faced by women in urban spaces? A: One of the main problems is that violence against women is seen in two ways: there are the ‘strong’ cases but also the ‘everyday’ cases such as sexual harassment in the streets, on public transportation, on the way to work and school, in the parks and in the overcrowded neighbourhoods. Not only women’s physically safety but also their dignity is at risk. Too often men are able to demoralise women by treating them as sexual objects.

This project works with municipalities and local authorities, from the most important cases of rape and sexual abuse, to the most ‘common’ and ‘less important’ abuses.

Q: Why do you think these issues have been overlooked thus far? A: All of our research shows that the municipalities are keener to fight hard crime by looking only at the most extreme cases – theft and murders. But abuse of women has gone on for years, for centuries. It has become regular, some would even say it has become a way of life. Most people are okay waiting until a woman has been stabbed or killed before taking the problem seriously, but that needs to end.

Q: How did you choose these five cities? A: We’ve done a lot of research on trends and statistics and finally decided to focus on big cities, especially in the most poor and marginalised areas of these cities. The sheer concentration of population has two aspects – firstly more people means women are more vulnerable; and secondly, one programme in a densely packed area can have an impact on many more people.

In Kigali, for instance, our research led us to two particularly big neighbourhoods, very poor and very populated – the Kicukiro and Nyarugenge districts. In Port Moresby, we are not focusing on neighborhoods but the market place, where more women interact and are more vulnerable to violence and aggression.

Q: What strategies do you plan to implement that are unique to Safe Cities? A: Well, we will start by communicating with local authorities and putting the most basic measures in place – such as better street lighting, or moving bus stops to safer, more crowded areas. The most urgent need is to make the streets safe, so we plan to promote access to emergency phone lines.

Another thing is to ask the authorities to pass laws against violence in public spaces. In line with this, we are working with the police and the military forces to train them to deal with situations, to respond more effectively to complaints and to respond with compassion to the women when they complain.

There is also a huge problem with the judicial system – we need to change how women are dealt with in the courts, how quickly they receive recompense for complaints. The judiciary has to be trained to deal more effectively with abused women.

Q: Will programmes be implemented in the schools so that young boys can also be a part of this initiative? A: Communication and public dissemination is very important and in this regard we might involve the schools, but this is not one of the main aspects of the programme – we can’t do everything.

But other programmes are working closely with men and boys – [U.N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki Moon has set a very good example of this by launching his campaign “UNiTE to end Violence Against Women”. One of the objectives of this campaign is to engage men and boys in the struggle against violence. He has also put together a group of well-known male leaders in sports and politics to stand with him in the campaign. [Brazilian] President Lula and [Spanish Prime Minister] Zapatero are two such people.

Q: What are some of the target goals for this programme? A: It is difficult, almost impossible, to measure the impact of violence against women in quantitative terms. We have been doing some quantitative and some qualitative surveys using focus groups to see what percentage of women have been involved in rape or assault in the street, or how many are afraid of being alone in public places – but we will not know the true impact until much later.

We are taking evaluation of the programme very seriously, because we understand this initiative to be a process by which we learn and can then replicate the results in other places.

There is a growing process, a learning curve, to the Safe Cities programme.

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