OpED: Women and girls should be included in urban planning in the C’bean

Riding a minibus/maxi taxi/ZR van through the streets of any beautiful Caribbean city, one will see spaces and buildings that were once full of life and in desperate need of rejuvenation. In some cases they bring a gritty character to the neighborhood and in many they create insecurities and unease among citizens, with a specific type of unease for women and girls in particular. Spaces can also remind us of what once was – and what can still be.

A bustling craft shop and cafe by the lady a few blocks away. Fruit and vegetable stalls run by the local group of women farmers. The after-school gathering place for young people from the communities, who “lime” in complete safety, if not so quietly. A bench along the street for the elderly and disabled to sit in the shade while waiting for that ZR van to reliably arrive. A relaxing walk in a lush park before rushing to the next errand: going to work, shopping, picking up the kids or helping the elderly family.

Spaces and buildings are abandoned for many reasons. Economic downturn, crime, more dangers like rolling hurricanes and more recently COVID-19 cutting off the solid flow of tourists. According to the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), Hurricane Ivan (2004) caused over US$3 billion in damage to homes, buildings and other structures across the region. Hurricane Maria (2018) caused significant damage to Dominica, totaling approximately US$1.3 billion. Hurricane Dorian (2019) resulted in a total of $2.5 billion in damages to the Bahamas.

While many spaces and buildings have since been rebuilt or given new life, there are still those that remain unattended, causing a sense of lost opportunity.

Resilient, inclusive, smart and safe public spaces allow businesses to thrive and citizens to live their lives to the fullest. Reliable and sustainable public transport is an essential part of this.

They both provide access to employment and key services, income generation, leisure and well-being, thus influencing gender equality. It is well known that gender and other socio-economic realities shape how women, men, girls, boys, LGBTQI people and other marginalized groups experience public spaces and public transport. What may be a safe enough space for a grown man may be a space to avoid for a young woman.

Generally, dangerous spaces for women and girls are the canary in the coal mine of so to speak insecurity for all. Although there is not yet data in the Caribbean on the prevalence of gender-based violence in public spaces and how this relates to broader crime issues, evidence from different countries in the region reveal the sad truth of the high prevalence of violence against women, including sexual violence and harassment. Based on prevalence Data in five Caribbean countries, 46% of women have experienced at least one form of intimate partner violence.

A deeper dive into the Data shows that in Grenada, for example, 26.6% of women have experienced sexual harassment without a partner in their lifetime.

The design of urban services and infrastructures has an impact on time, cost, safety, comfort and the psychological burden of users. For women and girls, street harassment is so prevalent. Whether they take the minibus, walk the streets or access public spaces, it can often be a frustrating and unpleasant experience. With urban planning processes taking greater account of the needs and experiences of women and girls, this can change. When given the opportunity, women and girls have proven to design spaces and systems that work better for everyone.

For example, the government of Barbados has added electric buses with specific seats for children and mothers to the public transport fleet to improve comfort and safety, as well as to mitigate climate change. Additionally, the Adopt a Stop program in Barbados is improving safety at the bus stop with solar-powered lighting and proper seating. In addition, under the direction of a woman-led electric vehicle company based in Barbados, charging stations have been installed in places where women feel safer – near entrances and near other amenities. Safer for women, safer for everyone.

Like climate change progresses, we can anticipate more intense and frequent tropical storms and sea level rise. Plus, that unwanted guest, COVID-19, is probably here to stay. Are our public spaces and transportation systems ready to take the hits and bounce back quickly? Let’s make sure that women and girls and all members of the community are part of the conversation and have the opportunity to lead change.

For March – Women’s Month – the world celebrates the contributions of women and girls who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation and response, to build a more sustainable future for all. Under the theme “Gender equality today for a sustainable future”, the UN Women Caribbean Cluster Office and UN Habitat support governments, civil society organizations and the private sector in the inclusion of women and girls as leaders in sustainable urban planning in the Caribbean.

Tonni Ann Brodber is the representative of the UN Women Multi-Country Office in the Caribbean.

Elkin Velásquez is Regional Representative for UN-Habitat/Latin America and the Caribbean.