The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruptions to daily lives and the operation of businesses and services, especially to health, social services, transport, hospitality, economic development, education, and recreation sectors with various measures in place in countries across different waves of the pandemic including: lockdowns, quarantines, curfews, social distancing, etc.
The pandemic has exacerbated violence against women and girls in public and private spaces. While some may assume that given the current context public spaces must be safer, however emerging data demonstrates the contrary. As women continue to use and be present in public spaces, especially those working in health and essential services, and in the informal sector, they face heightened risks to sexual and other forms of violence, with fewer bystanders and witnesses in public spaces. In online spaces, an overreliance on technology for communication and other transactions has also seen a rise in sexual harassment and other forms of violence facilitated through these channels.
The year 2021 commemorates the 10-year anniversary of UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Initiative, the first global programme that aims to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence that women and girls often experience and fear in public spaces.
It has inspired and supported comprehensive action through multi-stakeholder partnerships established at the local and global level with women in decision making roles, involving local and national governments, women’s rights organizations and other civil society groups, the UN, and other partners.
The Global Iniative began with five founding city programmes (Kigali, Rwanda, Quito, Ecuador, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Cairo, Egypt, and New Delhi, India) fostering an integrated approach to address the neglected issue of sexual harassment (focusing on women’s economic empowerment, political participation, and ending violence against women and girls). It now spans 50 city initiatives to date, including in urban and rural settings, and those affected by conflict.
Sexual violence in public spaces negatively impacts the health and well-being of women; reduces their freedom of movement and ability to participate in school, work, and public life; and limits their access to essential services and their enjoyment of cultural and recreational activities. In turn, women, families, workplaces, communities, and economies suffer. This issue is now widely recognized in broad frameworks, including the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (5, 11, 16).
This brief details some of the ways safe city partners from different sectors, in a short six months, have taken action in line with the recommendations set out in UN Women’s Policy brief on COVID-19 and Ensuring Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces for Women and Girls. Leaders within and across countries, cities and communities continue to demonstrate their resolve as they work to implement their holistic Flagship programmes and ensure that the prevention and response to sexual harassment in public spaces and other forms of violence against women is firmly embedded in development and recovery plans. This action forms part of each city’s multi-year comprehensive safe city and safe public spaces initiative with women and girls.