Making a city safe for women and girls is not just about having more streetlights. Women have not been considered in urban planning, and in order to shift the gender balance, they have to be empowered. We kick off a series on Safer Cities for Women and Girls in conjunction with International Women’s Day.


More than half of the world’s population lives in cities and according to the United Nations, by 2050, a further 2.5 billion people are expected to move into urban areas, with 90% of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa. However, while the impacts of urbanisation are felt by all, the experiences of women and girls in cities are different. The way women and girls use and navigate the city and its public spaces, and therefore how safe they feel in these public spaces are greatly affected by their gender.

However, this fact is greatly overlooked by cities, governments and urban planners. In an online lecture addressing women and public spaces, Ana Falú, an architect from Argentina and chair of the UN-Habitat’s Advisory Group on Gender Issues, quoted political theorist Hannah Arendt in saying, “The city is an organised memory, and in history, women are the forgotten.”

Ana Falú, who at the recent 9th World Urban Forum (WUF9), called for a global women’s strike on International Women’s Day, expounded the fact that women are omitted or have little participation in the decision-making related to cities, housing and planning. She continues to say that this omission has great repercussions and leads to three key conclusions: the first, that women do not experience or live in cities the same way as men; secondly, that urban assets are not equally accessible to both women and men, nor in terms of quality or supply; and thirdly that due to these inequalities, women are in a relatively more vulnerable position than men, and this affects their safety and wellbeing in the city.

To echo this, when The Economist published their Safe Cities Index in 2017, while cities were ranked in terms of infrastructure, digital, personal and health safety, there was hardly any mention of the safety of women and girls. Tokyo, Singapore and Osaka took the first three places as the safest cities in the world. While Malaysia in 31st place outranked Beijing (32nd), Athens (33rd) and Shanghai (34th) due to a high score in personal safety, it is not clear what the relationship is to women and girls.

At the Women’s Assembly at WUF 9, Falú said, “It is in cities where the most shameful inequalities are evident… Women are still the most poor among the poor.”



How does all this affect the safety of women in cities? According to Caroline Moser

Emeritus Professor, University of Manchester and Cathy McIlwaine, Professor of Geography, Queen Mary University of London who co-wrote an article examining women’s issues in UN Habitat’s ‘New Urban Agenda’, (a document that will ‘affect urban policy for the next 20 years’ ): in order for transformation to occur and the balance of gender equality to shift, cities need to commit to establishing the following women’s rights.

Rights to the City (land tenure)

Women need to be recognised as having rights to the city. This not only includes the right to fair use of public spaces and services in cities, but also land tenure rights for women, giving them individual titles to land. Moser and McIlwaine stress that measures like these, when incorporated into land regulations, ‘can transform gender power relations because it means women no longer have to depend on men in order to access land’. A prime example of places where women face difficulties in this area include Recife, Brazil.

Women have the right to economic opportunities to reduce their dependence on men for income. Even opportunities in the ‘informal economy’ such as waste recycling can empower them. Photo by Redd Angelo.

Rights to Economic Opportunities

The New Urban Agenda highlights that women have the right to informal economic opportunities in terms of “livelihoods, working conditions, income security, legal and social protection”. Moser and McIlwaine state ‘access to an independent income for those working in the informal economy’ (such as waste recyclers), and especially those who are experiencing poverty, ‘can empower women, while successfully contesting legal rights can change structural power relations by reducing their dependence on men for financial resources.’

Rights to Mobility and Safety

According to the New Urban Agenda, women should have the right to ‘public spaces and streets, free from crime and violence, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence’. When women are able to move about freely and safely with reliable transportation systems, and have access to both education and employment opportunities, they can lead more independent lives.

By reinstating these rights to women, the landscape of our cities could change drastically as the functionalities and services of cities then be redesigned to include women for the first time. But first, why are cities unsafe?

Tokyo has been hailed the safest city in the world according to a study by The Economist. However, there is very little focus in the report on the safety of women and girls. Photo by Andy Kelly.



Rapid urbanisation has led to mass urban migration and a large concentration of people in cities. In many countries, unplanned city extensions exist while decades of car-centric urban design have created sprawling urban environments that offer few work opportunities. As such, people and goods have been forced to travel long distances to employment opportunities, leading to congestion, pollution and a generally reduced quality of life.

In some cities, lack of planning has also led to slum formation, spatial inequality and

segregated communities, creating inequality and injustice and triggering crime, violence and in some cases, revolt.

Violence and the threat of violence against women and girls (VAWG) is also an alarming issue affecting communities and cities everywhere. Violence and harassment can affect women and girls in the workplace, in schools, on the streets, in parks, public squares, and on public transport, and limit their freedom to seek opportunities for work and education.

In the past, the burden of responsibility has often been placed on women to ensure their own safety by changing their behaviours, such as modifying their dress, not walking alone at night, and avoiding certain streets or public spaces where they are likely to be harrassed.

A study published by the International Journal on Emerging Technologies based on surveys done in India has shown that factors affecting women’s safety include:

  1. Poor urban infrastructure – dark or badly lit streets, derelict parks and empty lots, badly maintained public spaces, inadequate signage, lack of public toilets
  2. Lack of vibrancy and cultural activities at night causing empty streets after hours
  3. Lack of adequate public transport and apathy on the part of bus drivers, conductors and citizens, as well as a lack of awareness as to women’s commuting patterns and varied day-to-day needs which differ from men’s
  4. Insufficient presence and the unresponsive or worse, aggressiveattitudes of police and civic authorities
  5. Isolation and lack of community life, with many city residents moving about as strangers
  6. Traditional notions of privacy and refusal of neighbours/police to intervene in situations of domestic violence
  7. Conservative ideas and beliefs regarding appropriate behaviour, leading to the reluctance of protest in cases of public violence

These studies show that women’s safety in urban environments requires many sectors and people to change.

Poor urban infrastructure, including badly lit areas are one of the main causes of women feeling unsafe in cities. Photo by Andrew Haimerl.



Architect Seemantini Soraganvi, Associate Professor at SMAID College in Gujarat states in a report that women and girls experience situations of violence that are different from those experienced by men.

“Women and girls are sexually harassed, in streets, in parks and plazas, in schools, in work places, and while using public transportation. Studies show that women change their routines more often than men. For example, women tend to stop going out alone after dark while men do not. Thus, women and girls feel and perceive safety and insecurity differently than men and boys.”

She also highlighted that public spaces develop unspoken gender codes.

“In any given day, public spaces are the setting for a myriad of gendered social interactions. As a result of these interactions, public spaces themselves become gendered.

“For example, in a school yard, young girls may gather together under a certain tree and watch young boys play soccer in a field. As this process continues, the space under the tree will become understood as a “girl’s space” and the soccer field will become understood as a “boy’s space”. This can be problematic because public space should belong to everyone and everyone should have a right to use it – girls should feel free to use the soccer field and boys should feel free to sit under the tree.”

Ana Falú also highlights in her online lecture how women, who run most of the world’s households and are more often caregivers to children and the elderly, are deeply affected and inconvenienced by distances to transport, shops, schools and health services.

A woman’s experience in the city is very different compared to that of men, and many spaces in the city are not gender neutral, requiring women to change their patterns and habits. Photo by Vernon Rainier Cenzon.



It is clear that women are particularly impacted by urban design choices, the organisation of public services, and urban functions. Before women are truly able to enjoy public spaces and engage fully in the civic life of their cities, urban planners and the various authorities may have to look at ways to adapt the city, and begin new projects with women’s safety as a key element of their design programmes.

Designing and planning safe public spaces for women and girls plays an important role in the city because it raises awareness of the fact that space is not neutral and that the design of spaces can either facilitate or impede the mobility, safety and independence of women.

Beyond that, Soraganvi also states in her report that urban planning and design needs to recognise that ‘gender and gender relations between women and men are key factors in how urban spaces should be organised and developed’ and that ‘the city spatially reflects social, economic and historical characteristics unique to local women’s situations’.

She states that the mark of a good city should have public spaces and amenities which reflect the changes in gender roles in society, and recognise that the traditional division of labour (men as workers in the public space and women as caregivers and housekeepers) needs to be adjusted to suit today’s women, who now take on both roles.

Urban planning and design needs to also understand why and when women feel unsafe and address this adequately because ‘if women and girls avoid using certain public spaces because they do not feel safe, these spaces will become more insecure for women, girls, and other users.’

The inclusion of women and girls in the design of each city can therefore shift the balance of power between the genders and promote equitable sustainable cities and communities.

In the next part of this series on Safer Cities for Women and Girls, we address how women can be included in the decision-making process and take a look at how cities have successfully incorporated safety and gender-neutrality considerations into public spaces.

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