Working towards safe, sustainable cities for women

March 30, 2022

Making cities like Dhaka women-friendly and climate-proof requires a whole-of-society approach. VISUAL: Afia Jahin

By Atiqul Islam is Mayor, Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC). Sudipto Mukerjee is Resident Representative, UNDP Bangladesh.

The Op-Ed was first published in The Daily Star Click here to read the original publication.

How can Bangladesh respond to gender inequality and climate change—two of the world's greatest threats—in its cities?

We celebrate Women's Day every year to highlight women's achievements in all their forms—economic, political, social and cultural—and call for gender parity. This year, the focus was on "Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow." Specifically, it recognises how women and girls worldwide are leading the fight against climate change so that they can change lives for the better. 

So far, the focus has largely been on rural areas. However, women's roles in tackling the impacts of climate change in urban areas are becoming just as important. Cities are fragile, according to the Global Environment Facility (GEF). 70 percent of the global population will be living in urban areas by 2050—a time when cities will bear the brunt of sea-level rise, extreme heat, and greater food insecurity. Bangladesh is already considered ground zero for climate change and it is also rapidly urbanising, partly due to the climate crisis. Major cities like Dhaka are key destinations for climate migrants. Many of these migrants are women. On arrival, they often settle in low-income settlements that are prone to natural disasters that make them more vulnerable. So how do we start supporting change that turns women into problem-solvers instead of them having to only deal with the consequences?

We can start by asking if we are planning and designing cities keeping women in mind. Are women's needs and uses of public spaces and buildings adequately considered? Can they easily access basic services? Are there affordable and safe houses for single working women? Are the streets well-lit? Is there safe transport at all hours? What about clean public toilets? These are all seminal issues that need to be addressed for Dhaka to become a truly women-friendly city. Such disparities can limit women's mobility and opportunities for education and employment if left unaddressed. These challenges are also a hindrance from a development point-of-view since they often cause a challenge for organisations in the development, corporate, and other sectors in attracting females towards the workforce. Therefore, it is imperative that their safety, mobility, and security are ensured so that we do not lose out on the considerable professional talents of the women in our cities.

From a sustainability viewpoint, we can help women become our urban climate leaders by first addressing concerns around their basic needs and safety. The challenges are only growing as more and more urban residents compete for limited jobs, goods, and services. This can create conditions that heighten tensions in cities and affect women's well-being. We've seen that the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted systems meant to ensure women's safety and security, leading to increased domestic violence. It reinforces the point that we need to make our cities safer for women and make it free from any kind of violence they might face. This also means creating an environment wherein women don't fear reporting violence. 

Positive efforts are already being undertaken. For example, Dhaka North City Corporation's Urban Resilience project focuses on climate-proofing the city. Both of Dhaka's city corporations have also partnered with UNDP to improve livelihoods in poor urban communities through the "Livelihoods Improvement of Urban Poor Communities Project" (LIUPCP) The project is part of a nationwide effort covering 19 cities and municipalities. Here, women from the settlements are leading on urban climate adaptation by investing in their communities' infrastructure. For example, as part of the project, women led the development of 449 infrastructure facilities including drains, streets, water pipelines and sanitation facilities in Dhaka alone. More than 60,000 women have benefitted from these facilities. Nationwide, women have had a say in developing more than 7,000 sanitation facilities and 10,000 infrastructure facilities with more than 900,000 women benefiting from these facilities. 

Moreover, UNDP, together with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Young Bangla—the youth platform for Centre for Research and Information (CRI)—has been running a nationwide youth- led campaign on women's safety in public places since October 2020, which has reached more than 7 million people till date.  UNDP has also recently helped NHRC to draft the Prevention of Sexual Harassment law to address women's safety and prevent gender-based violence in Bangladesh. 

While these are good efforts, making cities like Dhaka women-friendly and climate-proof requires a whole-of-society approach. In other words, it can no longer be left alone to local city governments and state institutions to tackle these massive challenges. Rather, all Bangladeshi citizens, especially young Bangladeshis, must be encouraged to contribute towards solutions or in their scale-up. It starts with raising greater civic awareness. Awareness campaigns in schools and across educational institutions on women's safety, creating women-friendly public spaces, and on climate change are one avenue to explore. A study where women from different walks of life are interviewed to get their views on what they would like to see change in the city is also another step that can be taken. This will additionally have the benefit of enabling them to get further agency on decisions which impact their lives.

Most importantly, women and girls must have a say in the solutions. Over 200 women pitched in when asked how to improve safety as part of UNDP's campaign. Some mentioned strengthening public reporting and surveillance systems including having more CCTVs. Some highlighted working with religious leaders, transport workers and shop owners to raise awareness and provide support. Others noted sensitising the entertainment media which tends to undermine women and their safety. Traditional, stereotypical understandings of manliness, which often borders on domination, aggression, and homophobia, needs to be challenged and redefined. It is also important that women encourage other women to move past traditional gender-based roles. 

As authorities and more citizens work together, these efforts will help safeguard women's well-being in urban areas and set women up to act on climate change. We must include their ideas, experience, and leadership everywhere decisions are made. There are numerous positive dividends to be earned. First, investing in gender equality allows women access to fundamental human rights including the right to live free from violence and discrimination. Second, gender equality and climate change goals are mutually reinforcing. Progress on one front affects the other, and vice-versa. These issues will be key to ensuring Bangladesh's progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. It will also help set the foundation for a prosperous and inclusive Bangladesh as it aspires to become a developed nation by 2041. To this end, we remain committed as partners to invest in safe, inclusive cities for women that contribute to a sustainable future for Bangladesh.