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Meet The Heroic Campaigners Making Cities Safer For Women

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Editor's note: At the time of publishing, the news of the four women stabbed in a supermarket carpark in West London had not been reported.

New research from ActionAid shows that 79% of women living in cities in India, 86% in Thailand, and 89% in Brazil have been subjected to harassment or violence in public. That’s why ActionAid have declared today, Friday the 20th of May, as International Safe Cities for Women Day.

While we might assume that women have it much better in the UK, in the research project interviewing 2,500 women, ActionAid found that 75% of British respondents had experienced some form of violence or harassment in cities. And while 36% of women in UK cities outside the capital feel at risk of harassment on public transport, this rises to 51% on London transport. New mayor Sadiq Khan identified the issue in his campaign, saying: “Women face specific challenges on our transport network that are not currently being addressed.” Citing the reports of sexual offences on London transport almost tripling in five years, he vowed: “As mayor I will take these problems seriously.”
Courtesy of ActionAid
To give a visual representation of how many women worldwide are subjected to sexual violence in their lifetimes, ActionAid have set up an exhibition in London’s Marble Arch. Mannequins represent the stats – 20 are grey and 10 are red, the latter representing the number of women worldwide – a third – who will be subjected to sexual violence in their lifetime, according to UN statistics. Each mannequin is daubed with words from women that ActionAid work with across the world to combat gender-based violence; “This is my city”, “Whose business is it how I dress - it’s my choice”, “We are pushing for lighting on the streets”, “They don’t care who is watching” and “I don’t feel safe near the school.”
A recent project entitled #WECount (video above), between the Women’s Equality Party and My Body Back, sought to “reclaim our streets for women”, and encouraged them to share online the first half of the postcodes where they had been assaulted or harassed. The idea is to show “the true scale of sexual harassment on Britain’s streets.”

Why now? Well, following the New Year attacks across Germany which saw dozens of women groped and a new influx of immigrants blamed, MP Jess Phillips said on Question Time: “A very similar situation to what happened in Cologne could be described on Broad Street in Birmingham every week where women are baited and heckled.”

As well as calling for the government to ring-fence funding for women’s refuges, Jess has said: “We have to attack what we perceive as being patriarchal culture coming into any culture that isn’t patriarchal and making sure we tell people not to be like that.”
ActionAid’s work overseas has similar goals. Take Liberia, in West Africa, for example, where local grassroots activists have been working on schemes to stop sexual exploitation in universities and to increase lighting on streets to ensure perpetrators have no place to hide.

Liberia has gone through periods of unrest and crisis: two civil wars, one from 1989-1996, the other from 1999-2003, and from 2013-2016 it was affected by the biggest outbreak of the Ebola virus ever recorded. During these times, “We saw a huge spike in sexual violence” says Lakshmi Subramani, interim Country Director for ActionAid in Liberia. But it’s important to note that sexual violence “pre-dates the Civil War.” As well as forced marriages, child marriages and the practice of FGM on young girls, there is no law against domestic violence. Lakshmi explains: “The policy and the recognition of women’s safety and mobility nationally is missing. When we campaign for street lights, it’s not just about electrifying and having light for communities, it’s about recognising that not doing it enables street harassment.”
Leona Gomo, 31, is the head of Women Speak, a group at The United Methodist University in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. They have successfully campaigned for the government to fit lights on campus and near where women catch rides home from class. Now almost half of classes are made up of women, who feel safer due to better lighting. Leona says: “I think the men who want to sexually harass women know that they will be found out because of our group and their abuse won't be hidden. This has made a very big difference. It means these men feel they have to be careful in how they behave. However, due to electricity shortages, the lights are not always on. ActionAid and Women Speak are now calling for electricity for women’s security to be made a priority.

ActionAid work across the world and, from doing that work, have learned of how garment workers in Cambodia, girls living on the fringes of society in Brazilian slums, and British office workers all face issues along the same spectrum.

When I ask what she thinks of the fact that there is an overlap in the sexual violence affecting women in Liberia and the UK, Lakshmi tells me: “Women’s rights are usually seen as the other or the box you tick off. So you build cities without putting that gender analysis into it, you do urban planning, you expand opportunities into a global market. But if you’re not putting women’s rights at the core of the development agenda then you are simply enabling the prohibition of women’s freedom of movement.”

Far from meaning we must be ashamed of the similarities our streets share with those in the global south, the solidarity this provokes must be endorsed and fulfilled. Economically, we can help women elsewhere by joining ActionAid UK in calling for an increased proportion of government foreign aid to go directly to grassroots women’s groups in countries like India, Thailand, Brazil and Liberia. And in return, we can feel imbued with pride and recognition that, if women in challenging environments are making a stand against women’s issues being kicked to the kerb, then we should too. Because this isn't just a problem that affects certain cities, but all cities, across the globe.

Visit ActionAid's website here
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