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Ending Street Harassments in Cities Requires More than Surveillance

The Editorial Board

Walking alone in a city at night for women has never been a full normal experience. Dangers are everywhere to stop women from thinking that cities are also theirs. And it is the same even in daylight.

Walking sounds like a simple activity. But it takes more than two feet and clear eyesight to be able to reach one’s destination. For women, what’s in ‘more’ is the absence of danger. But women who live in cities know that it is wishful thinking to believe that they will never in a lifetime be exposed to sexually motivated harassment, objectification, or violence.

In March 2021, a 33-year-old woman named Sarah Everard disappeared in London, as she was walking home at night. Just a few days after, the police found out that it was a case of rape and murder – and the man who raped and killed her is a police officer. One early afternoon in July 2021, Farah* was waiting for her friend in the street of a residential area in Eastern Indonesia as a man with a full-on mask in a motorcycle approached her to ask for an address and within seconds, the man hit her on the face, arms, and lips, and drove away. The perpetrator turned out to be someone whose work was to ensure the betterment and safety of the citizens; he was a soldier. And Farah was not his only victim. As it turned out, there were over twenty unresolved reports of the same assault cases; from little girls to the elderly. Cities are still not safe for women. And it is not merely because the authority responsible for maintaining safety are not well-equipped, it is because there is a lack of surveillance and investment in spreading awareness of street safety.

Data documenting street harassment and violence in cities becomes a useful tool to determine the action plans to respond to what can only be called a gender-sensitive matter. ActionAid, a non-profit platform working to end violence against women and girls conducted a study in 2016 on women’s safety in cities. The study revealed that more than one-third of women in major cities have been subjected to harassment or violence in public spaces. Cities in countries such as India (79%), Thailand (86%), and Brazil (89%) record daily, persistent cases of street harassment. In a country such as Afghanistan, this figure reaches as high as 93%.

The widely suggested solution to ensure safety on the streets is natural surveillance – the presence of people in public spaces that act as a witness as women walk down the street. For instance, when street vendors or residents are gathering in the public space, women would naturally feel that they are being guarded against any possible harm. This is indeed a useful strategy to protect women from dangerous individuals. But no public space would always be on natural guards for 24 hours. There are certain times during the day and night when people are inside their houses. And those are the times when the perpetrators commit their acts.

Tech and Surveillance

Besides natural surveillance, there is artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance. It helps detect anomalies such as when unknown individuals or unusual behaviour happen in public spaces. Among AI surveillance technologies are smart cities, facial recognition systems, and smart policing. Smart cities are the incorporation of sensors, facial recognition cameras, and police body cameras that have been integrated with intelligent command centres to prevent crime, ensure public safety, and respond to emergencies. A facial recognition system is the usage of biometric technology to scan live footage of individuals and match them with an existing database. Smart policing is a data-driven analytic technology used to facilitate investigations and police response, and can even make predictions about future crimes.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace documented the supply of advanced AI tech worldwide. They found that China and the US are major suppliers, supporting forty-seven and thirty-two out of sixty-five countries in 2019, respectively. But depending on AI tech alone is insufficient. If the individual’s face could not be detected, it would still be quite an arduous task to uncover the truth.

The police officers spent months before Farah’s case to find out who the serial assaulter was. They had CCTV footage but since the man was wearing a mask, they could not determine who the man was. They had no luck in discovering the truth. Until it was realised that Farah’s stolen phone was registered for a service that allows the user to track the device’s location as long as it is connected to the internet. But it took three days to finally be able to use the service as the perpetrator had already changed her email password. But as soon as she was able to reclaim access to her email, the truth was revealed.

Albeit useful, not many people are aware of this tool. Using technology such as GPS-related tools is one of the strategies to ensure women’s safety. It can act as proof of where and when the case took place. Furthermore, it also enables women to choose the safest route to go during certain hours.

But what if the perpetrator had not taken her phone? Would they have caught him? How would he be caught? Some of the victims before Farah even moved to a different residential area to avoid the trauma that haunted them. The aftermath of sexual harassment is not merely making women more alert, it heightened fear. When will women be able to feel safe in public space regardless of whether it is day or night, deserted or crowded areas? The ultimate goal should be to reduce the prevalence of crimes against women in public spaces and liberate women from fears. And tech alone isn’t enough.

Planning Cities with Women

Tech is useful to prevent and catch various crimes. However, in developing countries, its distribution is highly disproportionate, with bigger cities acquiring more access to it than smaller cities in impoverished regions. Yes, tech is what got Sarah Everard’s and Farah’s perpetrators caught. But for people living in a disadvantaged city, or who are inept to basic tech that can protect their lives, their only hope for security is policymakers responsible for designing and planning cities. It is all a matter of whether women’s experiences are taking into account when the people who have been granted the right to act on behalf of society do what is right, not in a gender-neutral way, but by applying gender-inclusive analysis in planning cities.

Cities are not possessed by men. It is a shared space that should take into account the lived experiences of both genders. Yet, it has been argued that urban planning – the political process that concerns the design of physical, economic, and social activities in cities, is a male-dominated arena. Cities are planned and designed for men, with little to zero consideration to women’s city life experiences.

To improve women’s safety in cities, women should have an equal representation in urban planning. Women should have a say on matters that affect how they live their lives. Besides, they are also capable of making significant changes in how cities are designed. Women could make aware of existing tools that can be used to protect them, build protective mechanisms that can reduce the risks of harassment in cities, and even raise awareness of street harassment and violence. By having more women in the planning of cities, there will be a knowledge exchange and knowledge production of women’s experiences dealing with harassment and all the planning design will be gender-inclusive. Who else knows women’s bodies better than themselves?

To make cities safer for women does not mean discounting men’s experiences. It is the fact that women’s safety in cities is at risk and something should be done about it. To ensure women’s representation in urban planning does not mean limiting men’s voices either. Ending street harassments and violence in cities require cooperative action between men and women. And deep down, we all know that this is the only way to win the battle against those who wish women in cities harm.

*Farah is a pseudonym.

This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 02 — September 2021

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