From waste disposal to whistles – making cities safer for women

Early in 2018, high school student Jonaki from Bangladesh experienced an ordeal depressingly familiar to young women in most urban areas of the world. Walking through a dark alley, she was verbally and physically harassed by a group of men. The emotional trauma she suffered as a result of the attack began to decrease her mobility and hamper her ability to participate in community life.


Jonaki’s experience was far from isolated. A 2015 study conducted by ActionAid International[1], found that 84% of the women and girl respondents from seven cities in Bangladesh had experienced derogatory comments and sexually-abusive language. Another 2017 study by ActionAid found that 54.7% of women living in urban areas of Bangladesh face at least one form of violence including physical, psychological, financial, and social violence, as well as unwanted advances from strangers. There is no comprehensive legislation addressing sexual harassment in public institutions or places, and no laws or policies to support women in accessing legal services and justice.

ActionAid’s recent report Whose City? [2] highlights the fact that urban planning is often gender-blind, 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. The lack of accessible, quality and gender-responsive public services – street lighting, housing, water and sanitation, public transport, policing, security, health, and violence response services (shelters, rape crisis centres, and legal aid) contribute significantly to women’s lack of bodily integrity, including when they seek redress for violence.

In 2009 the Bangladesh Supreme Court issued directives to educational institutions and workplaces, requiring them to establish and maintain effective systems to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. It also recommended that the government enact these sexual harassment guidelines into law. However, implementation of this has not yet occurred and prevailing patriarchal attitudes mean that it places the burden on the victim to prove their innocence, without clear mechanisms for pressing charges against perpetrators.[3]

Research conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh reveals that students, employees and duty bearers have little knowledge about existing policies or guidelines[4]. Many institutions and organisations have not considered adopting policies to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and effective procedures for those seeking support.

More extensive research is needed to understand why the guidelines are not being implemented, and to generate evidence to support broadening the guidelines and anti-sexual harassment law to include public spaces. This research is critical to supporting ongoing awareness-raising by women and girls who are advocating to government and other duty bearers for the implementation of the guidelines and their enactment into law.

While advocacy at national level progresses, grassroots empowerment projects are showing real results on the ground. Unlike so many other young women in her position, Jonaki knew a way to fight back after her attack. As a member of her local Adolescent Girls Club, she had a community of peers ready to support her and take action.

The Adolescent Clubs (for both boys and girls) were formed in in 2011 in Chanpara, an informal settlement two hours from Dhaka, with the support of ActionAid Bangladesh and their local partner, the Population Services and Training Center.

Jonaki’s Girls Club consists of approximately 100 members who gather every Thursday to discuss the social issues they face on a day to day basis. Through ActionAid Bangladesh’s Safe Cities work, funded by a partnership with Australia’s Intrepid Foundation, members of the Girls Club had already received training on their rights with regards to sexual harassment, violence against women, safe mobility, and access to public spaces. They’d learned about advocacy for gender responsive public services and transport systems including how to use both legal and institutional mechanisms to claim their rights.

So when Jonaki told her fellow club members of her ordeal, they were able to discuss the issue and formulate a plan of action to achieve change. They prepared a memorandum of requests to take to their local government representatives, including suggestions for improved street lighting and better waste disposal sites.

While lack of waste disposal may not seem an obvious facilitator of street harassment, overflowing garbage bins and flooded drains affect the day to day experiences of women and hamper their mobility and their access to public spaces.

Like many cities, Jonaki’s home had not been designed to take the needs of women into account, because women had not been included in decision making when its municipal structure was designed. Her experience highlights the importance of inclusive gender perspectives in urban planning, to reduce opportunities for sexual harassment and violence towards women and girls.

As a result of the adolescents’ advocacy, the local government authority has committed to include drainage systems, pavements and street lights in new road constructions, and promised to budget sufficient funds for this in future.

The Adolescent Club’s advocacy work did not stop with local government. A program of community outreach by the youth members convinced all the households on the street where Jonaki was attacked to install outside lights, making sure the area was well enough lit to prevent another such incident. The household heads were so convinced by the club’s advocacy that they donated their own electricity lines to power the lights.

The Adolescent Girls Club members asked ActionAid Bangladesh for whistles, which they distributed among community members, allowing them to call for support if they felt at threat of harassment. The whistles also functioned as a useful tool for awareness raising about women’s public safety.

The Adolescent Girls Club members took part in self-defence classes, and are now planning capacity development training programs for their community on gender based violence and safe public spaces for women and girls.

By working together and receiving the right training and support, the girls have taken significant steps to reduce the fear of violence faced by young women like Jonaki, and ensure that in future they will be able access public spaces more safely.

Beyond their success on this immediate issue, members of the Adolescent Club are now empowered to analyse the issues they face, support each other and stand up for their rights with decision makers – skills which will be making a difference in their lives and communities well into the future.


[1] See report at:

[2] Whose City? An evaluation of urban safety for women in 10 countries ACTIONAID – 2017