NEW DELHI – Going out for dinner and not sure which area would be safer at night for a woman traveling on her own? Want to track your daughter to ensure she gets back from college safely?
A map-based mobile safety app may be your answer. Safetipin, designed by the charity Jagori, uses crowdsourcing to rate the safety of areas in Delhi based on factors including lighting, population density, transport and gender diversity.
It also acts as a personal GPS tracker, allowing users to be tracked or to trace a loved one.
Safetipin is one of thousands of projects being rolled out in cities across the world as part of a United Nations initiative to stem cases of rape, sexual harassment and molestation in urban areas.
From New Delhi in India to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and Quito in Ecuador, a small but growing number of municipalities, charities, companies and community groups are joining U.N. Women’s Safe Cities Global Initiative.
“Unsafe public spaces limit women’s and girl’s life choices. This daily reality limits their freedom to participate in education, work, recreation, and in political life,” said Laxmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. Women.
“In many cities, adolescent girls are afraid to walk on their own when they go to school on the streets in their own neighborhoods because they experience various forms of sexual harassment, such as cat-calling, stalking, whistling, touching.”
One in three women globally have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, according to U.N. Women.
While many countries have in recent years strengthened laws and improved infrastructure to curb sex crimes, efforts have lacked a coordinated, focused approach — and are rarely assessed for their effectiveness, experts say.
A burgeoning metropolis of 25 million, Delhi and its environs gained notoriety for sexual violence after a young woman was gang-rapped on an unlicensed bus in December 2012.
The attack, and the victim’s death from her injuries sparked widespread protests and increasing awareness of the problem.
As a result, more women are reporting abuses, say charities and the police. There were 2,166 reported rapes in 2014 in the city against 1,636 in 2013 for a rise of 32 percent, according to police data.
“There are areas where I feel safe like around busy markets where there are lots of restaurants, but there are many areas where it’s really scary,” said Reshmi, 22, a student, outside the Green Park metro station in South Delhi.
New Delhi is now one of 25 cities, including Port Moresby, Quito, Kigali and Cairo, to have joined the safe cities project. Some of the initiatives so far include boosting street lighting, installing toilets, setting up help lines and strengthening laws on sexual harassment.
Each city first does a “scoping” survey on perceptions and attitudes towards sexual violence that is used to develop city-specific programs that are evaluated every five years.
In Delhi, for example, the first study done in 2012 found that 90 percent of women had experienced sexual violence in public spaces and only 5 percent felt safe in the city.
Using these findings, authorities, charities and others can work out specific initiatives to address women’s safety.
As well as the introduction of mobile apps like Safetipin, programs that encourage men and boys to think about sexist behavior are also being carried out.
At the same time, the authorities are installing CCTV cameras in buses and police stations. They have also ordered taxi firms to have GPS systems in their cabs, and set up fast-track courts for sexual violence, amongst other measures.
Other cities are also taking up the challenge. For example, in Cairo, the ministry of urban planning has adopted women’s safety audits to guide their development plans.
In Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, authorities have upgraded a market where more than 80 percent of the vendors are women. They have build new infrastructure, including bathrooms and showers, renovated market stalls, provided access to potable water and established a vendors association.
Municipal officials, however, admit that ending sexual violence is not just about creating infrastructure, but also about sustained public campaigns that dispel sexism and challenge gender stereotypes.
“In the city of Kigali, every new paved road is accompanied by public lighting. This has contributed to a safer environment in which women can work in the evening and night hours,” said Hope Tumukunde, vice mayor of Rwanda’s capital, at conference on safe cities in Delhi last week.
“But we are also using artists to deliver strong messages against sexual harassment through a popular singing competition. Such strong messages can go a long way towards changing sexist attitudes and it will ensure more prevention than retribution.”