Skip to main content

Whose City?

An evaluation of urban safety for women in 10 countries


The New Urban Agenda agreed at the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in October 2016 guides national, regional, municipal authorities and others when thinking about cities, urbanisation and sustainable development. It commits to realising the concept of ‘cities for all’, otherwise referred to as the ‘right to the city’, which brings together a set of internationally pre-recognised rights to ensure inhabitants enjoy a just and sustainable city and high quality of life. Women’s participation is essential for building cities that are enjoyed fairly and equally by all who inhabit and use them. Hearing their voices and experiences is fundamental when considering shaping cities.

ActionAid and its partners have been working to safeguard women’s right to the city for many years, primarily through the Safe Cities for Women campaign to address violence against women in urban public spaces. It is widely acknowledged that governments across the world are largely failing to prioritise women’s rights by pursuing a neoliberal development model that suppresses regulation and equal distribution of wealth, promotes privatisation of public services and exploitation of women’s paid and unpaid labour and ultimately entrenches gender inequality.

Urban planning is ofen gender-blind in failing to recognise or respond to the different ways in which women and men experience urban spaces and their differing practical and long-term needs.

This report presents the results of a broad evaluation of women’s safety in urban spaces in Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Jordan, Liberia, Nepal, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe. ActionAid scored countries based on the overall rate of physical and sexual violence women face in their lifetimes, whether national legal frameworks and resourced plans of action to address gender-based violence exist and whether gender analysis and perspective is applied to urban planning, particularly for public transport. The scorecards are not a fully comprehensive analysis of all factors impacting on women’s safety in cities but focus on key issues such as public transport and provide a insights into the challenges and key issues such as governments’ capacity to address women’s safety.

The report aims to help governments better understand where they may fall short and to identify and prioritise actions to improve urban safety. It shows that women still do not fully enjoy their right to the city despite government commitments to end gender-based violence by using various rights instruments, national legislation, policy frameworks and establishing national central policy-making and coordination structures for mainstreaming gender equality.

Across the board, women overwhelmingly still face contstant threats of violence, harassment and intimidation. In Nepal, nine in 10 women interviewed face sexual harassment in public places and the younger they are, the higher the risk. In Brazil, a woman is raped every 11 minutes and the situation is deteriorating as the country experiences a rapid roll-back on its women’s rights commitments. In Senegal, deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs still influence legal and policy frameworks, meaning women’s rights go unprotected. In Jordan, there was a major recent debate on amendments to the penal code to maintain immunity from prosecution for rapists if they marry victims aged between 15 and 18 years.

Advocating for state authorities to account for the delivery of accessible, affordable and quality gender-responsive public services is at the heart of the Safe Cities for Women work. Women’s safety and enjoyment of their right to the city depend on proper road and lighting infrastructure, public transport, water and sanitation - including public toilets - policing, crime prevention and violence-response services such as shelters, rape crisis centres and legal aid.

States violate human rights principles and entrench gender inequality and violence against women when they fail to deliver universal public services. This evaluation focuses on public transport, which are a necessary prerequisite for women and girls to exercise their right to freedom of movement and enjoy and use their cities’ services without facing exclusion, sexual violence or harassment. In many cities, public transport is still poorly designed, unafforable, inaccessibe and unsafe.

ActionAid highlights some successful and innovative ways that women’s rights, social justice and civil society organisations influence and work with governments to improve women’s urban safety. But these best-practice cases are exceptional because progress is held back by a lack of sustained implementation and resources.