Making Latin America’s Cities Women-Friendly

(IPS) – “Violence against women is not only domestic, it also happens in the streets. Not having the right to feel safe in a city square or at a bus stop without someone bothering us, that’s also violence.”

This “discovery,” as she called it, was described to IPS by Ofelia Retamoso, who lives in the east-central Argentine city of Rosario, 300 km northwest of Buenos Aires.

Rosario is one of the Latin American cities taking part in the regional programme “Cities Without Violence Against Women, Safe Cities For All”.

Women like Retamoso consider catcalls and often aggressive come-ons that are typical in public spaces in Argentina — squares, streets, bus stops, buses, schools and even hospitals — to be gender violence.

Nervousness or even fear of such street harassment, even among young girls, prevents women from freely moving around, hinders their personal development, in terms of studies, work or recreation, and has an isolating effect on them.

The women taking part in the programme are participating along with local governments in actions to fight this phenomenon, ensure equal access to public spaces, and help design and build cities that are safer for everyone.

The programme is sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) with the support of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), and coordinated by the Women and Habitat Network of Latin America and the Caribbean (Redmujer), based in Argentina.

“The aim is to help women exercise their rights more fully, in order to reduce the violence that we face in both the public and private spheres in cities,” architecture professor Liliana Rainero, coordinator of Redmujer, told IPS.

Besides Rosario, Argentina’s third-largest city, the project is being carried out in urban areas in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru.

“The project is based on an assessment that shows that public safety policies in Latin America do not take into account violence against women, because it is not clearly visualized by either governments or civil society,” she said.

According to UNIFEM, one out of three women in Latin America is abused at some point in her life, and gender-based violence causes more deaths and injuries among women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war.

The programme has several strategic lines of action, Rainero explained. In first place, it seeks to generate knowledge on gender violence in cities, as an extension of violence against women in the domestic sphere.

Another focus is training and raising awareness on the issue among women, young people and police. In addition, specific strategies are developed to bring about concrete changes in the way cities are designed.

Debates among experts and women’s organisations in the various countries are helping spread the idea that “public spaces can either promote or stand as hurdles to peaceful coexistence between men and women,” Rainero said.

“Planning should not be the exclusive domain of experts,” the architect said, adding that women at a grassroots level should express their fears and needs, in order to drive changes and make public spaces their own.

In Rosario, Retamoso, a member of the Red Lazos de Mujeres por Nuestros Derechos women’s rights network, said that in her neighbourhood the plazas or city squares had become the territory of groups of young drug users, and women avoided these areas.

But with the support of the city government, the plazas were once again made safe for women and children. They were redesigned, with playground equipment for children and nearby tables and benches, football goal posts and better public lighting.

“The nice thing was that we painted murals, all of us together — the women from our organisation, local residents who stopped being afraid, and the kids (the youngsters who hang out in the plazas),” Retamoso said.

In Suba, a district in Bogotá, Colombia where gender violence is a serious problem, the programme worked with local women who recommended fencing in vacant lots and putting in public lighting along the streets and especially at bus stops.

“Neither at home nor on the streets” is one of the slogans used in the neighbourhood campaign to fight violence against women.

One of the most effective aspects of the programme in Suba involved the transportation system. Many women complained that they had been harassed on the Transmilenio, Bogotá’s modern bus system, where men frequently take advantage of the crowding to press up against or grope women.

Posters put up at bus stops show a man pushing up against a woman, in a red circle with a bar through the middle. The caption “We don’t want this support” uses a play on words in which “apoyo” or “support” in Spanish also refers to the practice of men leaning up against women.

Actresses and actors also took part in the campaign, acting out scenes on buses to raise awareness on the gender harassment that women frequently suffer in the public transit system.

In Chile, the programme is being implemented in 200 neighbourhoods in different cities, and the local organisation that is coordinating it signed an agreement with the Housing Ministry to back the effort.

Thanks to that agreement, a gender perspective was incorporated in 2008 in the housing upgrade programme launched by then president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) called “Quiero mi barrio” (I Love My Neighbourhood).

Besides the cities in the seven countries taking part in the programme, other urban areas “have been inspired by it” to carry out their own efforts, Rainero said.

One example is an initiative against “machista” violence in public transport in Mexico City, promoted by the government Women’s Institute. “It’s a very rich experience, and they not only adopted our proposal but we also learned from them,” she said.

Other cities in the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, are also working to bring about women-friendly cities through the Red de Mercociudades (MercoCities Network).

“The gender perspective used to be included in questions of health, education or domestic violence. But now it has been expanded to a focus on women’s right to safe access to cities and their services,” Rainero concluded.