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By Nicolette Pingo, South African Cities Network’s Programme Manager: Inclusive Cities

When one considers the dangers that women in communities face on a daily basis, just to get to and from work or to look after their families, celebrating Women’s Month can feel somewhat tone deaf as the majority of women in South Africa are not ‘free’. They may have freedom of movement, but their movements are restricted by new barriers. Consider the violence that they experience in their own homes, or in getting to modes of transport, often leaving extremely early in the morning in the dark when lack of lighting infrastructure means dangers are heightened. Then there are children to care for or informal businesses to run; women bear the brunt of the deep socio-economic issues and inequalities in South Africa. While much discussion has taken place in the month of August, we must be critical of how those discussions are leading to action. Too little is happening too slowly which continues to place our women at the coalface of vulnerability.

Shining the spotlight on urban safety

Safety in our cities has been under intense scrutiny in the past few weeks following the unrest in Gauteng and KZN.  It stands to be seen how the unrest of July 2021 will contribute to existing challenges of family disruption, spatial inequality, substance abuse and gender-based violence.

There are clear reasons for this. Cities continue to be designed without taking into consideration these now very real inequalities. This is a key root cause of violent crime and regretfully, the structure of our cities continues to contribute to these inequalities. Our cities continue to ignore women in the provision of quality safe, affordable and well-located housing with access to educational facilities (40% of South African mothers are single), safe public realms including streets, parks and public transport amenities as well as access to training and employment opportunities.

Enabling women’s economic contribution

This last point is extremely poignant on a larger economic level: women account for close to 50% of all those employed in the informal sector, which itself accounts for 17,4% of total employment and accounts for 18% of South Africa’s GDP. Women working in the informal sector are thus contributing close to 9% of all employment and account for 1,5-million citizens. Given our dire state of employment, this is a noteworthy number and one that should by all means be enabled. But, despite this obvious imbalance towards women working in this sector, little is being done to assist them, in terms of growing their businesses and in the infrastructure required to do their work. Notably the absence of planning and implementing well managed public ablutions places women in this sector at risk for violence and assault. This is a basic condition that persistently fails to be met.  

One also needs to consider the massive impact Covid-19 has had on this critical sector: it is estimated that of the 3-million people who lost their jobs during lockdown two thirds were women. Sadly, for those working in the informal economy, there was no social security safety net unlike for those in the formal sector. A loss of income leads to increased poverty, hunger and food insecurity, placing these already vulnerable women and their children in even more dire circumstances. 

More women needed at the policy and planning table

Unlocking this working potential seems almost too obvious to be overlooked, but what we see and know to be true is that women are not involved enough in spearheading city development – which affects their ability to contribute economically. The need for women’s voices in City planning, versus men which has historically been the case and still largely is, is abundantly clear but yet we fall foul on addressing this status quo. There fortunately have been green shoots of movement. The City of Johannesburg has partnered with the UN-Habitat to pilot the Her City UN-Habitat Toolkit under a project called Indlela Yabafazi. It is in its initiation stage and will explore developing safe routes in Diepsloot with and for women and girls using innovative collaborative planning tools like Minecraft. Diepsloot has some of the highest rates of violence against women ever recorded in national studies so the need for women to shape spaces like this are urgently required.

Furthermore, it’s abundantly clear that public spaces should be designed using CPTED principles, this is a multi-disciplinary approach to deterring criminal behaviour through environmental design, and by using participatory approaches to include women, children, people with disabilities and the LGBTQI communities in the design of spaces. Ensuring active programming to ensure that public spaces are used and populated will make those spaces safer for women and children to use.

Will a young girl today be safe tomorrow?

We are not alone in our issues of gender-based safety; so rife is this problem globally that it is Goal 5 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals which focuses on gender equality and Goal 11 that aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable Goal 10 which focuses on reducing income equality, must also be at top of minds with the South African wage gap between men and women sitting between 23%-35%.The clock is ticking to achieve these Goals, but time continues to run out on improving conditions for girls and women in South African Cities.

Cities have to plan for the most vulnerable in society. In designing the public realm, City-makers should thus put themselves in the shoes of a young girl travelling on her own to school. It is sadly, but truly a harrowing image. We need to reach a place where this young girl’s safety to and from school is safe for her today and safe for her tomorrow.

The only way we are going to do that is if we have the right people at the policy and planning level and that means having women at the table. City planning models, across the world, were engineered by men as were governance models and systems; these developers were not thinking about gender differences and today we have an architecture that does not respond to women’s needs. We need leadership who can see the future and are willing to take risks. We are not yet there in South Africa. We are stuck in a planning system that is not being shaped by women’s voices for the type of future that we want – and need.

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