Agric & Innovations Editor
Feeling unsafe in public spaces is one of the biggest threats that most women face in most parts of the country.
This is real and women and young girls say accessing toilets at major bus ranks at growth points, towns and cities is a nightmare.
Most say they never go to the toilets alone, for example at Mbare Musika, 4th Street, Erenkini or Market Square ranks.
“Near the toilet complex at Mbare Musika, there are boys who are always standing close by. They harass every girl who goes to the toilet. I never go to the toilet alone, especially when it is dark,” says Caroline Moyo, of Matapi Flats in Mbare.
At Mshikashika ranks, the abuse of women is even worse.
“We are in a free society where women cannot walk freely without being victimised or abused,” says Albert Nyathi, a renowned poet and musician who is also the United Nations Women Gender Champion.
“Our women and young girls can’t wear mini-skirts and pass through our 4th Street and Market Square ranks without being abused. In the past women used to be protected, but now it’s a jungle. Bad habits must stop.”
Recently, UN Women launched a campaign dubbed: “Creating safe and empowering public spaces for women and girls.
UN Women deputy country representative Loveness Makonese says the campaign which will run from September 19 to 10 December 2022 aims at fighting against all forms violence in public spaces to ensure the freedom and participation of women and girls in social and economic life.
She says experiences of violence prevent women’s full participation in public life and influence their sense of self, their understanding of vulnerability and has implications for women’s access to freedom of movement, education and livelihood.
Makonese stressed that the importance of addressing women’s access to public space is not about ‘safety,’ but about equality and independence for women.
At the campaign launch, women rights activists expressed concern over poor urban infrastructure and toilets.
Most of the rights activists called for better street lighting at growth points, towns and cities to provide more safety since dark areas are more prone to facilitate crimes.
Women and young girls complained bitterly about the insensitive attitudes of touts at Mshikashika ranks and public transport staff, including drivers and conductors for abusing them and hurling insults.
They called on local authorities to expand the street lighting infrastructure to help reduce the abuse of women and young girls.
“There is a need for increased focus on street lighting in public places to protect women and young girls in our public spaces,” said Talent Jumo, director of Katswe Sisterhood.
“This campaign is very important for us to end violence in public spaces. Women and girls still face harassment within the CBD – women are getting robbed at Mshikashika ranks, at Mbare Musika market and at various alleys in the city.
“We are calling on the government and our local authorities to improve street lighting, to ensure safe and reliable public transport systems and to improve general security in areas where women are prone to robbery, harassment and violence within our cities.”
UN Women has been working with various local NGOs and community based organisations (CBOs) under the Spotlight Initiative supported through a partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to end violence against women and girls and harmful practices.
Zimbabwe is among the 20 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia — Pacific and the Caribbean which have benefited from the four — year programme supported by the EU to the tune of US$30 million.
Jumo said improved lighting, enhanced access to clean water and ablution facilities and having safe markets and accessible public spaces for people with disabilities was critical for ending harassment and other forms of violence against women and girls in public spaces.
“This campaign really speaks to the need to protect women in the public space. Empowerment of women in the private space should also move to empowerment in the public space,” says Edna Bhala of the Civil Society Reference Group of the Spotlight Initiative.
“We need to reinforce the ‘He for She’ campaign to prevent abuse of women by men in public spaces. Enforcement of laws and policies needs to be strengthened to give this campaign traction.”
Poor street lighting and lack of public safety is a major factor blocking women’s economic integration in the mainstream economy.
The pandemic of sexual violence in public spaces limits women and girls in Zimbabwe from living a quality life and pursuing work outside the home.
Women’s rights activists say sexual violence and related gender issues must be considered during urban-planning processes under smart cities programme implemented by local authorities and which aim to improve and modernise urban infrastructure.
“As women we must provoke thoughts, discussion and debate around gender – focused urban planning and how it relates to matters of security, safety, mobility and opportunity,” said a women’s rights activist at the launch of the campaign.
“Women, girls and people from key sectors must contribute ideas on how we can improve on issues such as women’s safety in public spaces and transportation quotas for women on planning commissions and the usefulness of mobile phones as a source of security.”
Despite the problem of women’s abuse in public space, Zimbabwe has made tremendous strides in achieving gender equality.
The country has a robust legal and institutional framework which promotes gender equality and women empowerment.
The National Gender Policy provides for concrete measures and strategies to mainstream gender in constitutional and legal rights, economic empowerment, politics and decision making, health, education and training, gender-based violence, environment and climate change, media information communication and technology, disability and culture and religion.
This policy does not only unlock the potential of women but takes deliberate efforts to address the gender disparities across all sectors.