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Protecting women from the daily dangers of sexual harassment and assault in our cities

12 February 2021 - 10:49 By Siphelele Ngobese
Planning for safety must include gender as a key focus with holistic interventions targeting gender-based and sexual violence.
Planning for safety must include gender as a key focus with holistic interventions targeting gender-based and sexual violence.
Image: 123RF/ Dinis Tolipov

In the past few months, a proliferation of women-only transport services has been launched, the latest of which is from Bolt.

Its Women Only ride-sharing app is now available in eight South African cities, with plans to roll out to more in future. This follows hot on the heels of Mitchells Plain resident Joanie Fredericks’s Ladies Own Transport driving school, and Local’s HER initiative, also an e-hailing service.

It’s no coincidence that these initiatives hit the market at about the same time: the prevalence of sexual harassment and assaults on women who use public transport is staggering, with official police reports for the year ending March 2020 pegged at 53,000 incidents.

The reality is likely far higher, with intimidation and violence against women and girls an everyday experience for many who use public transport to simply get to and from work.

In fact, SA’s fight against gender-based violence (GBV) far outstrips global averages and highlights the need for consolidated policy and implementation tools that identify root causes and intervene in practical ways, to dissuade criminal and violent behaviour.

Gender-inequality at city planning level a problem

Addressing the historically patriarchal spatial planning and built environment industry is a start.

Women and girls, people with disabilities, as well as the LGBTQl+ community, are uniquely vulnerable in public spaces, with crime and fear undermining their use and movement. Part of the reason for this is the historical focus on men in the planning and design of public spaces.

Planning for safety must include gender as a key focus, with holistic interventions targeting gender-based and sexual violence.

Given South African women are largely the breadwinners, often partaking in informal trade to make a living, it is key that planning for safer spaces is gender-responsive. It must also address gendered spatial inequality in relation to public space as an economic driver.

A global issue

Issues concerning the safety of women in urban settings are not unique to SA. From Montreal to Delhi, women are subjected to increased incidences of sexual harassment and the possibility of rape where there is poor infrastructure, it is dark and there is no authority protection.

It's so rife that the UN developed the Women Global Flagship Initiative, Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces, in partnership with women’s rights organisations, local governments and UN partners.

Locally, the South African Cities Network annually compiles and publishes its State of Urban Safety in South African Cities Report to distil the state of current knowledge on urban safety-related topics for a policy and planning audience and support evidence-based practice.

Tech-driven initiatives, such as SafetiPin in India, have also been developed to help women stay safe while travelling. It is a free app that aims to make moving around safer, especially for women. Using real-time data, it provides users with information to make informed choices about where to and not to go.

A partnership with the local Soul City, an organisation that aims to improve the quality of life and health of women and girls, got under way in 2018 to bring the tech to SA.  

Small steps make a big difference

Implementing initiatives that can make a significant difference in women’s lives as they move between their homes, places or work, and supermarkets and schools, to name a few, is relatively simple: Shrubs can be cut back, streets and taxi ranks can get better lighting and there needs to be clearer access-points and pedestrian routes through spaces.

Khayelitsha is a case in point. Renowned for its high levels of rape, the community underwent a physical upgrading project in 2018 that focused on women’s access to and participation in work, including self-employment.

It specifically considered the improvement of good lighting, the introduction of closed-circuit television and public telephone systems, public transport and safe walkways. Anti-rape strategies were also introduced, and police presence was increased. The outcome was a 20% reduction in violent crimes against women.

While these seemingly easy-to-implement initiatives can be undertaken, the heart of the problem lies in the meeting of policy and practice.

SA has a wealth of urban safety policies, but implementation is largely lacking and siloed governance, especially at a local level, continues to undermine integrated approaches.

Stakeholder collaboration and community engagement needed

Clearer mechanisms with accountability checks are required to improve collaboration across government and with local stakeholders. As is integration with women who live in communities in which GBV is so high.

Participation with local individuals and groups across all phases, from design to management, has positive impacts, and shifts in city planning towards “co-creation and co-production” have been found to improve community engagement and ownership.

As practice catches up with policy, vulnerable women seek out their own ways to better protect themselves.

Some, for instance, pay a man whom they trust R200 a month to walk them from their home to the taxi rank in the early hours of the morning, and again late at night. Of course this puts additional pressure on their pockets, but it is often a must-have necessity.

Enabling safer cities for women

Access to safe, affordable and reliable mobility is a right, and is echoed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11, which highlights the need to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. 

Until we get this right, millions of women will continue to bear the brunt of spatial inequality, especially in disadvantaged areas like townships and informal settlements.

This presents a crucial barrier to a wide range of social, developmental and investment objectives related to transforming our cities towards inclusion and wellbeing.


  • Ngobese is from the South African Cities Network