Urban planning

Infrastructure designed for men puts women at risk, studies show

Girls stand outside shacks made from metal in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township, (REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly)

When urban planners consider how to improve cities, they may take into account factors such as how best to beautify the streets and how to minimize commute times for workers. What urban planners don’t usually consider is what women want from their infrastructure — and, according to experts, it’s time for that to change.

Back in the 1990s, a survey of Vienna residents revealed that women and men used public transportation very differently. Whereas men typically said they used public transportation to and from work, women said they often took multiple trips a day on public transport for tasks that included picking up and dropping off children at school, grocery shopping, and visiting older family members. In the wake of the study, Vienna’s urban planners adapted transportation projects to better suit women’s needs, added street lights to make the city safer for women walking home at night, and even widened sidewalks to help those with strollers.

Unfortunately, the case of Vienna is an outlier. On the streets of cities such as Cairo, 83 percent of Egyptian women have reported being sexually assaulted. In Peru’s capital, Lima, only 12 percent of Peruvian women said they felt safe. In New Dehli, India, a rape is reported every 29 minutes. Changes to infrastructure, some as simple as adding street lights and road side toilets in Delhi, the U.N. Women’s Safe Cities campaign has said, could help change these figures.

Complicating the issue are unintuitive disparities between what women want and what urban planners want — a plan to beautify Indian cities, for example, drove off roadside hawkers and street vendors, despite the fact that women said having these extra eyes in the street made them safer. Lack of data, particularly in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa where 92 percent of gender specific economic data and 76 percent of gender health data is missing, also makes it hard to produce change.

But experts say that empowering women to lead urban research, via measures such as community social audits, could help. One such audit of Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township revealed the number of public toilets in the area to not only be lacking but dangerous for the township’s women. A later study of Khayelitsha’s infrastructure found that doubling the number of public toilets could reduce sexual assaults in the area by 30 percent.

Read the full story at The Guardian.

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