Habitat III seen as important chance to ‘engender’ city design

Equality Now Global Executive Director Yasmeen Hassan speaks on ending discriminatory laws at a side event at the latest session of the Commission on the Status of Women, 12 March. (Susan Markisz/UN Women)

If women make up over half of the global population, and more than half of humankind also now lives in cities, it would stand to reason that the roles of women and men in urban areas should be equal. That, at least, was the goal of groups who gathered for the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at U. N. Headquarters on 9-20 March.

Unfortunately, in a world of persistent street harassment and sexual assault on public transport, the reality is far more complicated. “Men act like they own the city. They get to dictate how we dress, how we conduct ourselves within the space,” said Valentine Njoroge, a feminist writer from Kenya. “It’s like we walked into a man’s bathroom.”

Njoroge spoke during a filmed segment shown at a CSW side event, “Public Space: Opportunities and Challenges for Empowering Women”, on 13 March. Another event the previous day, “Habitat III, Beijing+20 and the City We Need”, likewise drove home the difficult ongoing relationship between women and cities.

At the latter panel discussion, Jan Peterson recalled the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which led to the founding of the Huairou Commission, the grass-roots women’s organization that she chairs. Reflecting on how Huairou emerged from that conference, she sounded a new call to arms. “Let’s set up a process and see how many women start to organize in their cities for Habitat III,” she said.

Indeed, a recurring theme at the discussion was the importance of grass-roots groups for women in the absence of a voice within larger institutions. As Peterson pointed out, “UN-Habitat was a male-dominated agency that looked at housing but not necessarily the people.” Olenka Ochoa Berreteaga, Latin America and the Caribbean representative of the Federation of Women Municipalists, argued, “The women need the support of social movements. We don’t receive the support of the mayor or the political movement.”

The right to the city for women as a matter of personal safety was also a predominant concern. “One of the turning points is to really look at the city from women’s eyes,” Suneeta Dhar, the director of Jagori, a women’s resource centre in New Delhi, said. “We need to create new definitions of safety and security for women.”

Lakshmi Puri, the deputy executive director of UN Women, moderated the event on public space, which took up a similar line of emphasis. “Cities should represent a land of opportunity,” she said. “But if gender considerations are not systematically integrated into city design, planning and governance, the cities and the public spaces become the land of discrimination, exclusion and violence. And, may I add, they won’t be smart cities either.”

To showcase how women at the grass-roots level can achieve meaningful, positive change in their communities, the public space panel turned to Lana Finikin, executive director of the Sistren Theatre Collective in Jamaica. Finkin’s group teaches performing arts to women in small communities as a way of conducting safety audits, with the support of the U. N. Development Programme. For example, they recite personal testimonies as a way of raising awareness about women’s safety issues.

Sistren’s success has led to women from the grass roots earning a seat at the table on public safety, policing and disaster-preparation committees in towns across Jamaica. “Grass-roots women have been at the forefront of development to make sure their communities are developed,” Finkin said.

On the broader urban scale, Puri acknowledged that next year’s Habitat III conference in Quito will be a key forum for women’s concerns to be heard. “Habitat III will provide a great opportunity for engendering the special design of cities as well as advocacy for the full recognition of the central role and contribution of women to the urban agenda,” she said.

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