It is almost a universal experience: in cities all over the world, girls and women feel unsafe alone in the street. At some point in their lives many have had to or will have to face sexual harassment, abuse and violence in urban settings, only because of their gender. Reham’s experience changed her life – but it was only one of millions of acts of random urban violence that affect women and girls.
Violence against women and girls cuts across lines of income, class, culture and residence. Some forms appear to be more prevalent in rural areas, for instance child marriage and honour killings; others in urban areas, such as sexual harassment in public places, forced prostitution and economically coerced sex.
Physical, sexual and psychological violence can be a daily feature of women’s interactions in their neighbourhoods, on public transport, in workplaces, schools, sports clubs, colleges, hospitals, and in religious and other social institutions.(1) Unsafe spaces abound in cities and surrounding areas – deserted streets, dark lanes, isolated bus stops, or public latrines.(2) Urban environments appear to offer greater anonymity to perpetrators of violence against women and girls. There is a causal link between domestic violence and urban violence, attributed to changes in social controls, in particular the breakdown of social bonds at neighbourhood level.(3)
Violence is generally underreported and reliable statistics are hard to come by. Women tend to feel shame, stigma, lack of confidence in protection by the law and fear of retribution.
Many adolescent girls’ first sexual experience
is forced on them. For example, according to a
survey in Ghana, the first sexual experience of
female adolescents in urban areas was significantly
more likely to be coerced than among
their counterparts in rural areas.(4) A
study in Cape Town, South Africa showed that 72 per cent
of young women who were pregnant and 60 per
cent of those who had never been pregnant had
reported experiencing coerced sex.(5) A
similar study in Lima, Peru found 41 per cent of young
girls between the ages of 10 to 24 had experienced
coerced sex.(6) And a multi-country
WHO study found that in Bangladesh 22 per cent of female
respondents in cities as against 11 per cent of
those in the provinces had experienced physical or sexual violence
after the age of 15 by someone other than their partner; in Brazil
24.5 per cent of female respondents in the city and 15.9 per cent in
the provinces reported violence.(7) The
same study found high levels of domestic violence in most
cities and provincial areas.
Data also suggest that violence against girls is very prevalent in schools.(8) Research in Nepal and Papua New Guinea demonstrated girls’ fear of being sexually harassed in schools by male peers, as well as teachers.(9) In one Kenyan study, nearly two thirds of girls who reported non-consensual sex named a teacher as the culprit.(10)
Violence against women and girls compromises
the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its
victims. It can leave deep physical and psychological
scars. It undermines girls’ development
by making it difficult for them to remain in
school, destroying their confidence in adults and
in peers, and putting them at risk of unwanted
pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Research in Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania has shown that young women who experience violence are three times more likely to be infected with HIV. (11)
Male adolescents and adult men often tolerate
or even condone sexual coercion. Young women,
too, may view sexual violence or sex that is obtained
through force, fear or intimidation as “normal”.
These attitudes reflect perverted gender
norms in some communities or societies. Victims
of sexual violence often feel at fault, which can
lead them to reactions such as a drastic change in life styles and submission to more traditional norms. Studies in cities of Peru and South Africa have found that both girls and boys believed the victim of a sexual assault was to blame and may even have provoked her own assault.(12) Another study found that in many countries a large proportion of women believe wife beating may be justified for reasons such as refusing to have sex or failing to complete housework on time.(13)
Values and attitudes that perpetuate gender
inequalities are instilled in childhood; adolescence
may offer a last opportunity to offer alternatives.
On this premise, the Guy-to-Guy Project by
Instituto Promundo in Brazilian cities engages young
men as change agents in the prevention of gender based
violence and the promotion of sexual and
reproductive health. The change agents, or peer
promoters, are young men from low-income areas
of Rio de Janeiro who reach other young men with
educational materials, condoms, a lifestyle magazine,
and a play about reducing violence against
women. Through the project many of the targeted young men have come to question men’s violence against women and girls.(14)
Similarly, in Mumbai, India, the men’s organization MAVA, Men Against Violence and Abuse is making strides in the fight against violence against women and girls. MAVA primarily targets young men and adolescent boys through mass awareness programmes on gender issues, through counselling services, and workshops. It uses innovative media like street plays, essay and poster-competitions, wall newspapers, radio plays, and discussion groups. It provides premarital guidance and counselling to young men and women and closely partners with women’s groups in Mumbai, including referral of cases of domestic violence and joint activities to tackle specific gender issues.(15)
The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is an international campaign initiated by women that runs yearly from November 25, International Day Against Violence Against Women until December 10, International Human Rights Day, emphasizing that gender violence is a violation of human rights. Individuals and groups around the world have used the 16 Days Campaign to call for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls and to raise awareness and call for action at the local, national, regional and international levels. The campaign demonstrates the solidarity of women and girls around the world organizing against violence, and puts pressure on governments to implement their promises to eliminate violence against women and girls.(16)
At the fifty-first session of the Commission on the
Status of Women in March 2007 the member
states of the United Nations discussed “The elimination
of all forms of discrimination and violence
against the girl child” and firmly recommitted themselves
to international human rights instruments, including CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The challenges now are to make sure that these international agreements and laws are enacted and enforced and that policies are implemented to end violence against girls and women. Partnerships should be strengthened and should make ending violence against women a public health priority. Community attitudes must change and communities, including young people, must be engaged in the process. The prevention of violence against women and girls should also be an explicit element in urban planning, and in the design of buildings and residential dwellings. Improving the safety of public transport and routes travelled by girls and women, such as to and from schools and factories, should be part of prevention work. Training for health care providers, teachers, law enforcement personnel and social workers should include a comprehensive understanding of the causes and consequences of violence against women. The media can play a powerful role in changing mindsets and social norms that tolerate violence against women and girls.