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. Women in cities everywhere are often held back because they fear and experience rape, assault and sexual harassment when moving around, accessing education and health services and going to work. Many women living in poverty are unable to enjoy their right to the city and have little opportunity to make their voices heard or change their situation. 

This year, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence focuses on ending violence in the world of work, which includes making sure that women and girls are safe going to and from work through all kinds of public spaces.

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.


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