Gendering Security: Making Public Places Safe

Photo Credit: Kateryna Kyslyak / EyeEm

Earlier this year, on March 8, women were celebrated all around the world for International Women’s Day. It has become a tradition that, on this day, speeches are spoken about the tremendous roles that women are playing in our societies and photos are shared about women we care about and love. But, as the #MeToo movement untied many women’s tongues, March 8 has also become a day to remind the world the many struggles women face daily. As the news of Sarah Evrerard’s disappearance and potential murder broke in the U.K., conversations about how unsafe women feel have multiplied.

On March 3, 2021 Sarah Everard disappeared shortly after leaving her friend’s apartment in South London. It was 9 PM and she never reappeared. Police officers investigated her disappearance and Wayne Couzens—a Metropolitan Police officer with the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection unit—was arrested in Kent and charged with kidnapping and murder following the identification of Sarah’s remains. A vigil was organized the following weekend in her honor.

This event sparked one major change: conversations that have been happening for decades behind closed doors came to the forefront, shedding light on the common fear that women experience when walking alone.

Social media is flooded with posts of women sharing their personal experiences and best practices to feel safer when going somewhere. Pretending to be on the phone, running when in dark alleys or pausing the music on their headphones to be aware of any footsteps around them are only a couple of protective steps that women engage in to feel protected and safe. The frequency of these experiences is heartbreaking, but more dangerous even, is the normalisation of such incidents.

According to a UN Women UK report, almost 9 in 10 women in cities around the world feel unsafe in public spaces.[i] The number is staggering and should make anyone shiver. Everywhere in the world, “public spaces” and “safe spaces” are fully antithetical for most women.

As women around the world are seizing available means to be heard and taken into account, the role of men to protect their counterparts has become central to the conversation. Recommendations on how to be a better ally and initiatives on educating men on these problems are a step in the right direction. Education, however, takes long-term work. Where are the “now” initiatives to protect current women from being afraid and being attacked? Women want to feel safe right now while we educate and change minds for the future.

The UN Women’s flagship initiative Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces has been leading the way for the last decade in cities like Quito (Ecuador), Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), Kigali (Rwanda), Cairo (Egypt), and Delhi (India). Today, we know the issue is global and the need for action is urgent.

There are several steps to follow in order to reduce the occurrence of misogynistic attacks, some of them have been emphasized by UN Women.

The first one is collecting data. To paint a comprehensive picture of the insecurity women are experiencing, data is necessary. Policies should reflect the reality of the experiences in their nuances too. UN Women’s report on “Safe Cities and Safe Public Space” has laid the foundation for adequate policy design. The data collected is primarily concerned with the U.K. but also brings an international perspective to the fore. We need both local and national entities in charge of collecting comprehensive and rigorous data, analyzing it and sharing it with both the public and the policymakers directly concerned by and with the power to address the problems that the data highlights. In this case, it would be managers of public spaces, institutions specifically focused on women’s rights and issues, and intelligence and law enforcement agencies, among others.

Once data is collected, developing initiatives to build bridges between different actors is critical. Women have been suffering from widespread insecurity for decades. From personal conversations and a desire to change things, grassroots organizations have emerged to raise awareness about this too-common phenomenon. Today, many activists are marching for their voice to be heard. Tomorrow, we need a bridge to be drawn between these activists and the actors mentioned above. Activists would highly benefit from the financial resources of governmental institutions while the latter would gain legitimacy and a field understanding from partnering up with grassroots organizations.

Consistently implementing those initiatives at local and national level is the following step. In order to gauge the effectiveness of the diverse initiatives, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms need to be put into place to ensure the process works. In the U.S., women rarely report cases of sexual harassment, and sexual assault because of a diversity of factor including the distrust of law enforcement institutions. As such, rates of sexual assault reports are unreliable. Making sure to regularly collect this data (every five years for example, to see an evolution) could be the big-picture means of evaluation.

Finally, making sure that this becomes organic is crucial. One of the steps is the necessity to gender security. A gendered security approach means understanding that someone’s gender will influence what they consider to be a security threat based on their experience as a member of that gender group. A gender-sensitive approach to the insecurity of women in public spaces involves breaking down the reasons for this insecurity. In this case, the insecurity is a result of patriarchal violence but also of a lack of understanding and recognition. Removing this insecurity could involve educating law enforcement agencies on the insecurity of public spaces for women. This can be achieved through awareness training, educational lectures and workshops as well as exposure to the struggles of many women. A gendered security approach would also ensure that women are in positions of power where they influence the decision-making process. With women in charge of designing public spaces, they would do so based on their experience and awareness of the dangers that public spaces represent for women. This would result in safer spaces for women. Putting the burden on women is both unfair and insufficient. Which is why practitioners and academics also need to design gender-sensitive analyses so that people, no matter their gender, can be aware of the existing threats and design programs, spaces, or organizations in accordance with the reality of these threats for all.

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