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Working together to make public spaces safer for women and girls

In the global movement to make public spaces safe for women and girls, a growing number of activists and organizations are focusing attention on marketplaces, working with local residents to make them safer.

In Ethiopia, for example, it is common for women to sell goods like garlic, carrots, and baskets along roadsides and in outdoor marketplaces, some formally and others informally organized. It is not easy work, and women often travel long distances from their homes to these spaces. Once there, they are seen as an easy target for robbery, bribes, sexual coercion, and sexual harassment. These conditions are problematic not only because they can limit women’s ability to earn a living, but also because marketplaces are often an information hub where people can share news, exchange communication, and pass along social information. Sometimes they are the sole public space for people to gather.

At UN Women's Safe Cities Global Leaders’ Forum in June, 140 people from 24 countries gathered in Delhi, India, to share ideas about the best strategies to address these issues. Teams were comprised of government officials, grassroots women, researchers, and staff from UN agencies that are implementing programs that form part of the agency’s Safe Cities Global Initiative (SCGI). The SCGI works with local organizations and government to tackle sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in public spaces. Launched in New Delhi in November 2010 with five cities, it now includes 22 cities. Representatives from these cities, as well as from other groups working on safe cities work, were present at the forum.

Across the three-day forum, participants recognized the connections between women’s safety and their economic empowerment. Marketplaces are a clear example of this connection. During one panel session, UN and NGO staff who work on safer marketplace initiatives discussed the challenges they face and solutions they are exploring in local marketplaces in places including Kigali (Rwanda), Port Moresby (Papa New Guinea), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and the Fiji Islands.

One common challenge is that many women vendors in these communities lack financial literacy. Thus they may not know how to advocate for their rights, may be overcharged or blackmailed, and may often feel alone and be seen as vulnerable in the marketplace. One way to address these problems has been organizing women into associations, cooperatives, or groups.

In Kigali, groups of 20 to 30 women formed cooperatives through which the local Safe Cities team provides them with financial literacy training and mentoring to help them access better opportunities. Around 2,000 women have joined these cooperatives. In Papua New Guinea, vendor associations have helped create connections between vendors and increased the inclusiveness of the marketplace. Fiji’s Markets 4 Change Programme has created six market vendor associations for women.

Women’s safety audits—a method that allows groups of diverse women to evaluate their community and raise their safety concerns with policymakers—have been a useful tool for helping women in the marketplace talk about the issues they are facing.

For example, in Ethiopia, where ActionAid—a federation of countries addressing poverty and injustice in 45 countries—is implementing a safe city programme, the safety audit revealed that women lacked access to a permanent selling place. Most women vendors lived on the outskirts of town and moved from place to place with their wares. This meant they were at a higher risk of exploitation by police and by customers. It also meant that the women earned less than the primarily male permanent vendors; women didn’t have access to credit; sexual violence was common when women traveled early and late in the day; and they didn’t have a support network and felt as if they were out there on their own.

From these findings, ActionAid was able to target specific solutions, such as teaching women leadership and negotiation skills, creating space for women to talk together about issues affecting them, and informing them about what was available in terms of entitlements.

These interventions also helped women gain more equality and rights within their marriages. One woman said, “When I started my own small business, my husband didn’t want me to go out and work. But because I received a lot of training at WiSE, I was confident enough to stand up to him. Today I have employed my daughter and husband, in addition to other employees.”

In Kigali, women and girls comprise 52 percent of the vendors and customers at the marketplaces. Most of them spend more time there than anyplace else and said they would benefit from improved sanitation, running water, daycare options, improved street lighting, and financial literacy training, in addition to safer working conditions. The Kigali Safe City Team plans to work with women and girls to develop a market area that can meet these needs.

In Papua New Guinea, enforcing laws against harassment has made a difference. A woman vendor at the Gerehu market in Port Moresby recently told the local UN team, “Unlike in the past, where women were subjected to violence, recent changes in the enforcement of laws/rules and regulations within the markets itself has minimized violence. [For example], the high cost of penalty fees or ‘spot fines’ has cautioned public, especially menfolk, not to cause violence.”

Leaders from the cities frankly shared challenges they have faced, such as having to prove to local authorities the value women vendors bring in order to gain help for them. Another concern was not knowing whether helping women have better wages and more rights in the marketplace could increase violence at home if their husbands or family members may be upset as they become more financially independent.

To address this very real possibility, in the Port Moresby Safe City Programme, a woman police officer based in the marketplace gives assistance to women who often suffer multiple forms of violence in the marketplace, and at home.

In Ethiopia, women can get help at a women’s affairs office. One woman vendor said that the “women’s affairs office at kebele [municipality] level helps women if the husband beats his wife, drinks, or does not give her money for household expenses. The husband will be called to the kebele to provide response on those things. He will be given advice by the women’s affairs office.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to making marketplaces safer, but women uniting to work with local authorities and get the services they need seems to provide the most promising strategies for change.

This article draws heavily from the insights of panelists made during the “Strategic Partnerships for Safe Markets: Strengthening Women’s Economic Empowerment” session of the UN Women Safe Cities Global Leaders’ Forum in June 2015. 




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