Technology can support the building of gender inclusive cities

#CriticalThinking

Digital & Data Governance

Picture of Kalpana Viswanath
Kalpana Viswanath

Co-founder and CEO of Safetipin, a social enterprise using data and technology to support cities in their endeavour to become safer, more inclusive and smarter

Safety of women and gender inclusion in cities has become an important concern around the world. Data shows that women are at risk of sexual harassment and violence in many, if not all, cities around the world, especially after dark. This prevents women and girls from participating in city life without fear and threat of violence.

A study by Hollaback and Cornell University in 2014 interviewed over 16,000 women and reported that over 50% of the women in Europe and 75% of the women in the United States had faced their first incident of harassment before the age of 17. Over 81% of the women interviewed had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Other studies conducted in Delhi, Dar es Salaam and Rosario revealed that women had experienced some form of sexual violence in a city setting.

In 2003, more than half of the world’s inhabitants became city dwellers. The Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations formulated in 2016 now have a stand-alone goal on inclusive urbanisation and human settlements, with a specific target on gender inclusion: “universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities”. It is now being increasingly recognised that cities are spaces where people should have the right to access public spaces and that public spaces are a public good. This is supported by the targets of SDG5 which focuses on the elimination of “all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.” The New Urban Agenda adopted at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016 provides key principles for inclusive urbanisation, with an emphasis on gender inclusion.

Using technology, tools can provide quick access, privacy as well as trigger responses.

The fear of violence in public spaces affects the everyday lives of women as it restricts their movement and freedom to exert their right as citizens and inhabitants of the city – freedom to move, study, work, and leisure. However, creating safety involves much more than just responding to violence: it is important to create the conditions by which women are able to move about safely and without fear of violence or assault. Research has shown that many factors play a role in determining women’s access to the city, including urban design and planning, community involvement, improved policing, usage of space, and so forth.

Over the years, there have been many initiatives aimed at making women feel safer and making cities and public spaces in particular more inclusive.Today, technology and the digital space is an important one, both in terms of finding solutions as well as reaching out to and connecting larger numbers of people, especially the young. Some interesting initiatives include online mapping of sexual harassment and unsafe spaces such as HarassMap in Egypt. Others are apps that seek to map the safety of public spaces. Safetipin, developed in India, is one example of an app which has converted the safety audit tool into a digital platform. It is interesting that many of these innovations have arisen in developing countries, and that they are now being used in many parts of the world. As we know, gender-based violence is not only a concern for developing countries.

Mobile applications could be part of the solution. Asmobile apps allow women to instantly access to the the most current data,it is thus a tool that helps women to determine the safety of the area they are in. Using technology, tools can provide quick access, privacy as well as trigger responses. For example, after some incidents of violence in taxicabs, some countries have ordered the drivers to install panic buttons inside the vehicles for women to use. There are also many apps that include panic buttons and allow women to reach out to people or the police in a dangerous situation.

Governments need to ensure that ICT policies aim to increase access for disadvantaged groups.

But we know that the digital gender gap is still there, reaching 12% in 2016. This gender divide is higher in rural areas and also has an age dimension: among 15-24- year-olds, the gender gap is 2.9% in low- and middle-income countries. It grows among the 25-74-year-olds across all countries, but is higher for low- and middle-income countries (7.7%) compared to high-income countries (3.5%). When looking at the 75+ age group, the gender gap becomes significantly larger, with an average gap of 45.8% across all countries.

It is obvious that there are several factors that play a role in the gender divide, and we need to have policies that can address these in a proactive manner. In an ever-increasingly connected world, the digital divide will affect people’s ability to access information and opportunities. Governments need to ensure that ICT policies aim to increase access for disadvantaged groups. The private sector, a major player in the digital revolution, also needs to formulate policies and practices that address this divide and find ways to reach the more underserved populations. We need to continuously collect gender disaggregated data to understand the problem in order to find solutions. More technology has to be directed towards addressing problems that women face, both online and offline.

The gender digital gap is at its lowest among the youth. Therefore, technology is a very effective way to reach young women as well as young men in the effort of building gender inclusive cities and boosting women’s empowerment. Equitable access has to be part of the agenda, not only for governments but also for the private sector, as it largely owns and determines the agendas of the tech world.


This article is from the Development Policy Forum discussion paper ‘International development and the digital age’, in which international tech and development experts consider how to use new technologies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and generate ‘digital dividends’ for the developing world. The discussion paper will also build on the Policy Insight debate ‘Making the digital revolution work better, faster for development’, which was held on 7 November in Brussels.

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