Making our Public Spaces Safe for Women

Making our Public Spaces Safe for Women

Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration setting out a global vision agreed by 189 governments for advancing women’s rights and removing the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation  in all areas of life, public and private. Inevitably it will be a time to celebrate the many achievements over that time but also to reflect that in too many cases, real change has been agonizingly slow for the majority of women and girls in the world.

Today, not a single country can claim to have achieved gender equality. Multiple obstacles remain unchanged in law and in culture. As a result, women remain undervalued, they continue to work more, earn less, have fewer choices, and experience multiple forms of violence at home and in public spaces.

Sexual harassment in public spaces, remains a largely neglected issue, both at home and abroad with few laws or policies in place to prevent and address it.  It happens on streets, in and around public transportation, places of entertainment, public sanitation facilities, water and food distribution sites and parks.  Women and girls experience and fear various types of sexual violence in public spaces, from unwanted sexual remarks and touching to serious sexual assault. This reality reduces their freedom of movement, and constrains their ability to participate in school, work and public life. It limits their access to essential services and their enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. It also negatively impacts their health and well-being.

UN Women is the only global agency working for gender equality and women's empowerment in every realm of society - through grassroots programmes to helping governments design policy, and working with influencers to create behavioural change. As part of its mission to progress the empowerment of women and in particular advancing SDG 5, UN Women’s Global Flagship Initiative “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces” partners with government, organisations and communities to create a united movement for safe, inclusive public spaces.

Based on local scoping exercises, these partnerships seek to develop and effectively implement comprehensive regulations and policies to prevent and respond to sexual violence in public spaces; ensure a gender based approach to urban planning and investment; and seek to change attitudes and behaviours to promote women’s and girls’ rights to enjoy public spaces free from violence. 

Participating cities now include New Delhi, Kigali, Cairo, Edmonton Canada, New York, Brussels, Dublin and London. In the UK, a pilot project by UN Women UK is using new technology to build up the first ever data picture that goes beyond anecdote to show the reality of what is happening to women and girls by allowing them to record incidents using a mobile app. Work in London has recently started and it is hoped it will attract interest from both the private sector and local councils throughout the UK.

To date no city in Scotland has joined the scheme but perhaps 2020 would be a good year for at least one of our major urban centres to show its support for Generation Equality! To be kept informed on the Safe Spaces Now movement you can sign up to our mailing list at


This blog was written by Ann McKechin, Trustee at UN Women UK. Ann will be joining us at our annual conference on 25 Septmeber 2019 as a panelist at the breakout session entitled 'Driving equality in our own workforce: Gender and leadership across the international development sector'.

Check out the full programme and book your place today!