Women and the City

Publication Author: 
ActionAid
Date: 
2011
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Urban men and women experience violence differently. They also experience and perceive protection and safety differently. Women fear and experience violence that falls in two main dimensions: violence against women and violence arising from urban insecurities, particularly as related to urbanisation and poverty. Women may experience these two types of violence simultaneously. By analysing these differences, we can begin to address women’s safety in urban areas.


In most countries, men are more likely than women to be killed by urban violence, especially by people unknown to them. Women are more likely to suffer violence at the hands of people they know, but also experience violence committed by strangers. Women report being more afraid than men, and are socialised from an early age not to go out alone into public spaces (Women and Habitat Network of Latin America, in Rivas, 2010). Women’s fear of violence restricts their movement, limiting their use of public spaces and movement from their homes to public or other private spaces.

Violence against women in public spaces particularly affects the most marginalised. Women’s roles and the differences between women by race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability, marital and parenthood status and socioeconomic status directly influence how women experience cities on a daily basis.

Building on the work of other organisations in the safe cities movement, in 2011 ActionAid piloted work to investigate women’s safety in cities and urban spaces in several countries where it works. This project sought to build upon previouswork and to develop new tools and approaches, foster public awareness, and develop practical strategies to enhance women’s urban safety.
The vision that organised the research is the right of women to freedom from violence and the risks to their safety posed by inadequate infrastructure, services and poorly planned or managed urban spaces. The research explores the ways violence and insecurity limit poor women’s mobility and their participation in society. ActionAid’s approach is participatory and human rights-based. Capturing and prioritising women’s experiences offers new information that can be used to strengthen decisions made about safety and mobility.

Women fear and experience violence that falls in two main dimensions: violence against women and violence arising from urban insecurities, particularly as related to urbanisation and poverty. Women may experience these two types of violence simultaneously. For example, a woman may experience rape by someone she knows (gender-based violence), have it discounted or rationalised (another form of gender-based violence), and then struggle with inadequate services as she seekslegal recourse and access to a health service (urban insecurities).

The ActionAid research offers a look into the lives of groups of women whose knowledge and views of their urban realities have previously not been drawn upon to create safer cities. These include women garment workers from urban factory areas in Cambodia, women attending universities in Liberia, and women informal vendors in Ethiopia, to name a few. This report presents findings about women’s safety and mobility in five countries:

Brazil: women living in poor neighbourhoods in three cities of the state of Pernambuco: Recife, Cabo de Santo Agostinho, and Mirandiba.
Cambodia: women garment factory workers in the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh.
Ethiopia: women engaged in informal vending in Addis Ababa.
Liberia: women university students fromthree campuses in Monrovia and Gbarnga.
Nepal: women using public transport in Kathmandu Valley.

In each of the five countries, ActionAid country teams and local partners identified a target group of women and/or focus area. The teams were provided with a Toolkit from which they selected approaches and tools to capture women’s safety experiences. Country teams were encouraged to adapt tools so as to capture the information they sought in ways that were culturally and contextually appropriate.