This opinion article was written by Quratulain Fatima, Pakistani Civil Servant and CoFounder of the advocacy organisation Women4PeaceTech and a contender in Apolitical’s women in government writing competition.
In 2012 I was city administrator for Pakistan’s fourth largest city, Rawalpindi, which has a population of over two million.
Soon after my appointment, the 65-year-old resident Rasheeda came to tell me how women in her low-income community did not have any recreational spaces. The ultra-conservative culture also meant that she could not walk around on her own — exacerbating her arthritis. Soon other women came to me with their concerns.
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They felt comfortable doing so for the first time now that the administrator was a woman. Their issues ranged from an inability to interact with other women, mental problems, and various physical diseases that were all made worse by the lack of safe spaces for women.
Despite being a woman in a privileged position, the truth was that even I could not walk around in the evening unaccompanied by a man. I was no safer than them.
South Asian countries are marked by huge male sexual entitlement. Public spaces are dominated in a very physical sense by men and this dominance enables men to feel powerful enough to harass women.
A 2018 global poll by the Thomas Reuters Foundation ranks my region of South Asia as one of the most dangerous places for women
Indeed, women often lack safety in public spaces due to street harassment. In one of the few studies on street harassment in Pakistan, a study of more than 200 youth in Gujranwala found that 96% of the girls experienced street harassment.
Of course, safety concerns are not limited to my region. A recent survey by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, for instance, found that 81% of women and 43% of men in the US had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. The most common arena for harassment was a public space.
A dangerous place for women
A 2018 global poll by the Thomas Reuters Foundation ranks my region of South Asia as one of the most dangerous places for women.
India stands first, Afghanistan second and Pakistan sixth out of the 193 countries. The poll ranks the countries on parameters of risks faced by women specifically regarding healthcare, economic resources and discrimination, cultural, tribal, religious or customary practices, sexual violence and harassment, non-sexual violence and human trafficking.
Providing safe spaces for women does not have to be costly, it just has to be strategic
This was not the first time these three neighbors were identified as among the world’s most dangerous countries for women. In 2011, they were among the top 10 dangerous countries for sexual crimes. These sexual crimes range from sexual violence to acid attacks, honour killings and other harassments. Every woman in these three countries may report facing one or another kind of harassment at some point in their lifetime.
I’ve seen the impact of these statistics up close.
The prevalence of public place harassment against women creates a scarcity of safe spaces in communities where women can gather and build networks to feel secure outside homes. Women need safe spaces to think critically and explore themselves and their relationships to the world.
Yet, in Pakistan, the lack of safe spaces for women is not very high on the government’s agenda. The reasons for this are varied: lack of funds, no feminist policy focus and few women in positions to influence policymaking.
When I was the administrator, I and the community looked for low-cost, self-sustaining innovative solutions to address the concerns women brought to me. Fortunately, we were able to convert playgrounds for existing government owned schools into women-only parks after school hours. Some may consider this solution as regressive due to segregation of genders but in environments where gender discrimination is high, sometimes segregated safe spaces are the immediate — although not only — answer to combat harassment.
Women’s safety can’t wait
It has been nearly six years since I took that almost no-cost solution to provide safe spaces for women.
It helped the women living nearby, but the situation remains virtually unchanged for women overall across Pakistan. What we need are more of these kinds of innovative, small-scale solutions to pave a way for creating sustainable safe spaces for women.
Evidence shows that less than 40% of the women who experience violence seek help and those who do, mostly look towards community and not formal mechanisms. This reality reinforces the necessity of community-based solutions to create safe spaces for women.
I saw first-hand how providing safe spaces for women does not have to be costly, it just has to be strategic. Even a single street light can reduce violence against women in public spaces. Segregated carriages in trains, buses may be another way for dealing with the safe space problem in the short term. Technology has been used to create safe spaces in countries where women find it difficult to report abuse. Initiatives like Safecity in India uses crowd sourced data for designing specific community interventions to combat harassment.
There is no denying the fact that social behaviors need to change. However this is a long and arduous process. In the meantime, women and girls should not be denied safe spaces to harness their true potential. Engaging with stories of women can go a long way in designing safer spaces for them.
It is time to take action to create safe spaces for women so they can also live healthy and happy lives as any human should. — Quratulain Fatima
(Picture credit: Unsplash)