Harassment in Public Spaces: The Importance of Gender in Urban Planning and Management
Dated: 21 November 2016
I recall walking home from work in my first week and as I got closer to my apartment, I went down a street where five or six tuk-tuk drivers were huddled on the pavement playing some sort of card or board game. One of them must have noticed me when I was a few metres away and alerted the others. They all immediately stopped their game and stood up to get a better view. Some left the pavement and stood in the street, hands on their hips. Some got into their tuk-tuks and watched from behind the metal grates. Some pointed and tentatively walked in my direction.
The entire scenario was so bizarre that I even turned around to see what was drawing their attention, only to realise that it was me! In that moment, I remember feeling very unsafe and afraid. So I clutched my belongings a little tighter and walked a bit faster. Thankfully, nothing happened. By that I mean no one attempted to attack or harm me physically or verbally. They just stared at me, but that does not mean no violence took place.
This is just one of the many incidents I have encountered during my time here in Cambodia. Some are heartwarming and include laughter and playing with cute babies at the mall. But some are uncomfortable and involve invasive actions such as strangers rubbing my arm when I walk past, touching my hair without my permission or taking photos of me without consent. I understand the fascination: there are few Black females in this part of the world. But at what point does it become harassment? Can staring even fall under harassment?
The answer is yes, it can. An important part of what defines harassment is that whatever the scenario might be, impact outweighs intent. Always. It is about how the person on the receiving end is impacted by the situation, not the intention of the sender. So my experience with the drivers was indeed harassment. A form of street harassment to be more specific.
“Street harassment describes unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers that…make the harassee feel annoyed, angry, humiliated, or scared…It ranges from verbal harassment to flashing, following, groping, and rape…Street harassment is a human rights violation and a form of gender violence. It causes many harassed persons, especially women, to feel less safe in public places and limit their time there. It can also cause people emotional and psychological harm.” Source: Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report 2015 (p.5)
Harassment in public spaces happens at an alarming rate to women all over the world, regardless of race, religion, nationality or social class. It causes anxiety and restricts free movement within the city. My experience reminded me of the 2014 social experiment conducted by the non-profit movement Hollaback, whose main aim is to stop all forms of harassment in public spaces on a global level. The experiment consists of a video which shows a woman walking in New York City for ten hours and captures the harassment she experienced. There were over a hundred catcalls (or ‘Eve-teasing’ in south Asia), numerous winks, and whistles directed at her. Some people awkwardly walked next to her in silence for several minutes, trying to get her attention.
The clip caused a storm on social media. Some felt it was biased against Black and Latino men who are the only races that appear in the video. Some felt it was biased against men in general because they too receive unwanted attention in public from women and men. Some felt harassment was too strong a word to describe the incidents because the men in the video were simply giving compliments. Others felt the actress in the video received that much attention because she wore tight fitting clothes. In response, some did their own versions of this experiment, varying the types of clothes worn to see if it would elicit a different response. In some cases it did (for example, a woman in New York City wore a full covering hijab or burka and did not receive catcalls at all) and in some cases it did not (for instance, a woman in New Delhi wore an Indian suit and chunni but still received catcalls).
Whatever your take on the social experiment, I am sure we can all agree that a city ought to be safe and inclusive for all its inhabitants. Yet the Internet is filled with horror stories of women being groped and harassed in public spaces on a daily basis. It is clear that men and women have two very different experiences of the same city. As a result, when making cities more sustainable, women ought to have a say in the town planning and development process. Think about it: how can urban areas be designed and managed to be more inclusive and safe for women when they are designed solely by men? This is a blind spot that only women can see past.
Therefore, incorporating gender into urban planning and management is an essential remedy for rehabilitating poor urban design choices and poor management of public spaces. The 2009 UN-HABITAT report entitled ‘The Global Assessment on Women’s Safety’, highlighted that solutions are often as simple as maintaining adequate street lighting around the city to prevent attacks otherwise hidden by the darkness. To reduce the number of groping incidents on public transport systems, women-only train carriages and women-only taxis are available in some parts of the world, including India, Japan and Malaysia. Although strong arguments can be made for or against this type of segregation, it does not negate the important role that gender plays in urban planning and development.
What I know is that having all those pairs of eyes on me was just as invasive as being on the receiving end of all those catcalls in that video. Violence against women is not limited to physical abuse or assault behind closed doors. It can also occur publicly with strangers in the form of harassment, be it verbal or in what appear to be minor actions such as following or staring. What initiatives can be introduced if gender was an important part of town planning? That is a topic for another conversation. I could write an entire paper on this subject but let me leave it here for now. What is of paramount importance is to recognise how crucial gender perspectives are in attaining safe, sustainable and inclusive cities.
For more Global Urban Lectures, visit the UN-HABITAT website
Takudzwa Madzingira is from Zimbabwe and holds a BSc Hons in Property Studies from the University of Cape Town and an MSc in Real Estate Management & Development from Heriot-Watt University. She is currently pursuing her passion for sustainable urban development, management and town planning at UN-HABITAT Cambodia and aims to continue raising awareness on gender issues in this sector.