Today marks International Youth Day; this year’s theme, “Safe Spaces for Youth,” emphasizes the necessity of places where youth can gather and engage in constructive and meaningful discussions where they are free to express themselves. Citing positive effects of the “availability and accessibility of public spaces to youth such as parks, sporting facilities, cafés and community gardens,” The United Nations (UN) Youth Day program identifies creating public safe spaces as one of their priorities.
In 2015, UN Women declared public space to be “a social good, which should be safe, accessible, inclusive and available for all,” though many youth do not enjoy such accessibility. This is especially true for young women.
Public spaces are often male-dominated environments where violence against women—especially sexual harassment—is unfortunately far too common.
A global report by UN Women states that women face harassment in parks, markets, streets, buses and trains in both urban and rural areas, and regardless of the country’s level of affluence. The United Nations Population Fund reported that “parents often keep their daughters inside the house, protected from any contact with males” by taking them out of school, increasing their domestic chores, or beginning to prepare them for marriage. And according to a Population Council report, “for many girls in the developing world, the opportunity to move freely in the community becomes limited at the onset of puberty.” Such restriction on young women’s mobility results in isolation from friends and insufficient social contact, which has negative effects on girls’ health.
By working together to make safe public spaces for girls, communities, youth leaders and local governments can help combat gender-based violence in public. Creating public safe spaces uniquely for female youth is a crucial first step towards transforming all public spaces into areas where women feel safe and towards changing societal beliefs about who should occupy public space and how they should occupy it.
Communities can be extremely effective when they organize to help increase girls mobility in public spaces by creating support groups, establishing facilities, or reserving time solely for girls at an existing community center. The act of reclaiming public spaces in their community that are usually reserved for men and boys is incredibly empowering for young girls, as researchers observed in the International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) Parivartan for Girls program.
Parivartan for Girls engaged 12 to 16 year-old girls in a slum community in Mumbai through an 18-month program that combined training session in kabaddi, a traditionally male-only wrestling-like sport popular in South Asia, with empowerment workshops. The program culminated in a kabaddi tournament in front of an audience of over 500 members of the community.
Playing kabaddi publicly helped the girls claim agency over their own bodies and movement. Just as significant is that their parents, who had previously been reluctant to let their daughters out of the home, expressed pride while watching them play.
The United Nations Population Fund strongly recommends that safe spaces for girls are “women and girl-led.” In the Parivartan for Girls program, participants were coached by educated, unmarried 18- to 24-year-old female mentors; they acted as “positive deviants” because they countered cultural gender and marriage norms and set an empowering example for their young mentees.
The positive impact of female youth leaders was also seen in ICRW’s recent ‘Tikambisane’ intervention, which engaged adolescent, HIV-positive girls in Zambia in six support group sessions that were all co-facilitated by two female peers living with HIV. Participants noted that having peers co-facilitating put them at ease and made them more comfortable discussing their experiences openly, and that their peer mentors “made them feel accepted and fostered a sense of unity.”
Safe spaces for girls are most effective when they are led by young female leaders—both of these programs remind us of the power of connecting girls with mentors from similar backgrounds with common experiences.
On a larger scale, to make public areas safe for girls, urban planning needs to be sensitive to and informed by gender. City governments should consider gender in their policies on infrastructure and urban planning. A city that is safe for girls needs to include clean, well-lit public toilets that do not have broken doors. It has well-lit streets and efficient, secure public transportation.
To improve the security of the transit system for women, the cities of Montreal and Toronto in Canada began to allow women traveling at night to get off between stops so that they didn’t have to walk as far to their destination in the dark. In Vienna, Austria, upon observing that, as girls and boys turned ten, the number of girls in public parks “dropped off dramatically,” but the number of boys stayed the same, city planners added areas for sports other than football and footpaths to increase accessibility. City officials noticed an increase in the number of girls using the space “almost immediately.”
As a teenage girl growing up in Washington, D.C., I’ve been fortunate to enjoy broad freedom in my mobility. I generally feel safe while walking to the bus stop, riding on the Metro and traveling around D.C. Thinking of the girls whose parents did not want them to participate in the Parivartan program and play kabaddi, I realized just how lucky I am just to be able to play soccer at the local public park with friends — without fear of harassment.
Everyone plays a role in creating safe spaces for girls. Communities can contribute to this goal by creating empowering, girl-centered programs, and city governments can contribute by factoring women’s needs into their urban planning—but youth voices need to be included in all of these efforts, from project planning and implementation to monitoring and evaluation.
Now is the time to create safe spaces for youth worldwide.