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By Claire Barnett
n International Women's Day, we said that it was a day of protest, not a party, and, over the past few days, we have been reminded of why this is so important. Women, girls and marginalised people are exhausted, afraid and angry, and this is a moment for change.
Sexual harassment is a spectrum of behaviours, from shouting aggressively at a woman in the street to groping, coercion to unwanted sexual activity, and assault. For decades, women have been told that they should accept this reality and work to protect themselves from attacks. This week's horrific news has shown that this is not only wrong, it also doesn't work.
UN Women has been working for 10 years delivering our safe spaces programme in cities around the world, and we've learned two things.
‘We hear the same fears and experiences from women in rural India, the slums of Cairo, or an apartment block in London’
First, every woman has a story. There is shared experience all over the world: we hear the same fears and experiences from women in rural India, the slums of Cairo, or an apartment block in London.
Second, the best solutions work when we come together: training public transport drivers, bar staff and street support; rolling out tech solutions to give women better ways of seeking help or a safe route home. And most importantly, to change the things our society sees as acceptable behaviour towards women in the street, on public transport, and online.
The solutions we find look different in different parts of the world, which is why we always create them based on data and stories gathered from thousands of women who know their public spaces best, and where the issues lie.
Over the past year, we've held an incredible hackathon hosted for us by Beautystack’s CEO Sharmadean Reid, run campaigning and storytelling sessions with the Roundhouse and I WEIGH, and held workshops with Living Proof where more than 500 women created ideas for safer spaces; we took this to Parliament this week.
New supporters are coming on board every day, from The National Lottery Community Fund’s ‘Emerging Futures’ Fund to the new All-Party Parliamentary Group for UN Women, so we need to act, and to demand that leaders take action. Imagine a world… What would you do?, a film directed by Florence Winter Hill at Missing Link Films, is a window into the reality we could live in if we come together and use all of this momentum to take action right now. We're raising our voices together, and the world is listening.
Hopefully, we will never again in our lifetime experience a nation in lockdown, and will soon return to public spaces together. We need to be ready for that time with new urban design solutions to reduce the risk of violent behaviour, to have a better response from emergency services, for nightclubs to act when violence does happen, and with education and behavioural science programmes so we start to see change in preventing violent behaviour in the first place.
It is no exaggeration to say that this is a human rights crisis. But we know we can change that to help women and marginalised groups be safe, included, and free.
Please add your name to our open letter and become part of the Safe Spaces Now community at unwomenuk.org.
Claire Barnett is Executive Director of UN Women UK.
In a week when women’s safety has come into sharp focus, UN Women says it’s time for our voices to be heard and for marginalised groups to feel safe from the risk of violence.
By Claire Barnett