Habitat III: Mainstreaming gender issues

The need to involve women as decision makers in urban planning and policy making is recognized as the key to give them access to Right to The City


The Quito Conference discussed solutions to prevent the violence against women while using public transport. Photo: Priyanka Parashar
The Quito Conference discussed solutions to prevent the violence against women while using public transport. Photo: Priyanka Parashar

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 5 of the UN says: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. All of the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals sound all-encompassing and too lofty to be pursued in a realistic manner. That, however, is the idea. The SDGs are value-pillars which guide planners while they go about their mundane tasks of drawing up maps and fighting resource crunches. Fortunately, the New Urban Agenda adopted in Habitat III breaks down these goals into sub-topics that people can wrap their heads around and know how to create a path towards achieving that utopian ideal.

The need to involve women as decision makers in all aspects of urban planning and policy making is recognized as the key to give women the access to Right to The City, a right that in practice today excludes one half of the society. In Habitat III, this was the focal point of discussions helmed by international bodies working towards gender responsive public spaces and services like the Huairou Commission and Women in Cities International.

The word “safe” appears 44 times in the New Urban Agenda, underscoring the importance of making cities “safe, resilient and sustainable” . This is a goal that is, of course, particularly pertinent for women. To that end, some headway is being made. UN Women is leading a global initiative of Safe Cities, under the leadership of Lakshmi Puri, UN Women’s deputy executive director. New Delhi, where as we know only too well there is a gaping need for such an intervention, was one of the pioneering cities to take part in the program. The Safe Cities initiative aims to make cities safer through partnership and collaboration between residents, government and the private sector. It remains to be seen, however, how the Indian government’s 100 Smart Cities mission incorporates “Safety for Women and Girls” in its ambitious plan.

Also read: Habitat III: Ushering in the New Urban Agenda

The fact that VAW, which stands for Violence against Women, is now an established acronym is indicative of how prevalent aggression against women is across the world. It comprises a wide range of acts—from verbal harassment and other forms of emotional abuse, to daily physical or sexual abuse. At the far end of the spectrum is femicide: the murder of a woman. To protest against femicide, all women participants in Habitat III were urged to wear black on the third day of the conference, 19 October.

This violence against women while using public transport restricts their mobility and, therefore, access to social and economic opportunities. Practitioners and academics from the transport sector brought to the forums in Quito several examples of solutions implemented across the world and a refinement of people’s understanding of a grave issue. In casual conversations we use “safety” and “security” interchangeably, but the word “safety” in the context of transport refers to whether the driver was driving in a manner where the passenger felt safe from bodily injury. Security on the other hand referred to deliberate physical aggression by a co-passenger or staff member. One can be safe but not secure in a bus, and vice-versa. Studies have shown that the presence of uniformed policewomen or guards in public transport settings sent the message that the state was behind them and increased confidence in women passengers compared to merely installing a CCTV.

Also read: Habitat-III: The importance of being local

Gender is also a key component to discussions on climate change. To the uninitiated, it is curious as to how something as overarching as climate change can have a gender aspect. The link is that climate change affects the world’s vulnerable population the most and since most of the world’s poor are women, they become a segment which is most at risk during natural hazards. Yet, women can (and do) play a critical role in response to climate change due to their local knowledge and their ease in leading sustainable practices at the household and community level, which has been demonstrated in various climate-related projects.

There was far more focus on gender issues in Habitat III than there was in Habitat II in 1996 in Istanbul. Yet, a prominent feminist architect and activist from Argentina Anna Marie Falú told me, “It is not enough. The road is long and women’s representation is missing in many aspects of the New Urban Agenda.”

Perhaps people are mainstreaming gender without knowing it, was the premise of a practitioner from Chile who works with women in African countries. She recalled how for months she had been trying to gender sensitize her own organization only to be met by the whole office rolling their eyes as soon as she uttered the G word. And then slowly, a few months later, the men began asking questions in an attempt to understand. Questions like why women talk less in meetings or why certain references were inappropriate. That’s how it is with entire societies too was her message. You have to keep at it, and slowly urban spaces will respond to and adapt for women, creating more inclusive cities.

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