The evolution of “Call Umida,” an innovative pilot project in Uzbekistan to make cities safe for women
From safe locations to safer and more prosperous communities
July 19, 2023
Cities can be vibrant and exciting places to live, work and explore. However, they can also be dangerous for women, who often face harassment, assault, and other safety threats. On 12 April 2023 a new law prohibiting sexual harassment came into force in Uzbekistan – an important step in advancing gender equality and empowering all women and girls.
This blog explores some of the ways municipal authorities and local groups in Uzbekistan and beyond are making their cities safer for women, including through innovative technologies, community-based initiatives, and policy changes.
There we sat in a full room of people with their eyes closed in pressing silence. That is when a young girl’s voice started telling us the story of her street harassment experience. She is not alone in this world, there are millions of us. Those who once ran away from a stalker in the street, trembling in fear of the sound of whistles, whips, unpleasant words, disgusting touches. The listeners' reaction was unequivocal - some were angry, face expressions showing resentment, generally united by the confidence that streets of our city need to be safer for women and men, for girls and boys. This is how we officially started our experimental initiative against street harassment in Uzbekistan – “Call Umida.”
Street harassment is any unwanted expression – verbal or non-verbal, or physical actions such as catcalling, whistles, gestures, touches, etc. They are mostly directed at girls and women in patriarchal cultures, the sense of power and permissiveness is assigned by default to men, while fear of violence keeps women silent, which normalizes sexualized harassment in public places.
Street harassment is a serious obstacle to the realization of women’s rights. It jeopardizes mobility, which is the basis for women’s rights to education, work and leisure essential for reaching their full potential and living a fulfilling life. Street stalking and harassment is a globally pervasive problem that disproportionately affects girls and women. The stigmatization around these phenomena is so high that even in developed countries with strong law enforcement, such cases remain unpunished. In its 2016 report on Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces, UN Women reported that more than 90 percent of girls and young women who experienced street harassment did not report the incidents to the police.
Street harassment, like other forms of gender-based violence, is deeply rooted in power dynamics, toxic masculinities, and prevailing gender norms, posing a significant obstacle to human development. Although we have yet to quantify the economic toll of unsafe streets for women, there is compelling evidence showcasing how gender inequalities impede the progress of nations across the globe. The 2023 Gender Social Norms Index by UNDP reveals a distressing lack of improvement in biases against women over the past decade. Consequently, the Breaking Down Gender Biases report emphasizes the urgent need for policy interventions and institutional reforms, including investments, insurance measures, and innovative approaches. These initiatives aim to foster a new social context characterized by acknowledgement, representation, and education. Empowering women with the right to mobility through making streets safer serves as a pivotal pathway towards achieving these goals.
In November 2021, UNDP’s Accelerator Lab in Uzbekistan organized a collective intelligence session to collaboratively explore gender-related issues. The effort engaged one of the most popular and influential social media platforms, "NeMolchi.uz/SukutSaqlama.uz" (Do not be silent), which raises the most urgent and vital topics related to violence against women and amplifies cases of gender-based violence which often end up resonating in the society. Based on the results of initial stakeholder surveys and interviews, UNDP launched a pilot initiative in March 2022 dubbed “Call Umida.” Umida means “hope” is the Uzbek language and is a common name for girls; in this case it implies hope for a supportive safe place when one experiences street harassment. The initiative helped establish a network of more than 300 safe locations where children and women could find temporary shelter when faced with street harassment.
A month after its launch, anti-street harassment week was observed in Uzbekistan for the first time. A group of volunteers organized an outreach campaign to support the Call Umida initiative, which received positive responses and openness to start the conversation around this phenomenon and to seek both traditional and innovative solutions to the problem.
The initiative offered an opportunity for the private sector to get involved in finding solutions to challenging social issues like street harassment of women. Considering the UN Guidelines on Businesses and Human Rights and the role business enterprises can play in promoting and respecting women’s rights, this initiative was offered to numerous private companies operating in Tashkent. We were much pleased and even surprised with the positive response. The first partners to join the initiative included large supermarket chains, restaurants, computer game clubs, pharmacy chains, co-working centers, and academia. Local influencers joined the discussions and shared information about the initiative with their networks.
Next steps: from safe locations to safer streets
Street safety is a complex issue that requires a comprehensive approach focused on three important aspects: 1) Enforcing criminalization sexualized harassment 2) shifting attitudes and cultural acceptance to reject such behaviour; and 3) minimizing the possibility of street harassment and stalking through gender-sensitive urban planning.
Criminalizing public sexualized harassment is an important step in combating violence against girls and women. It is a logical continuation of the commitment to gender equality demonstrated at the highest level in Uzbekistan. Recently adopted legislation makes harassment in public places an administrative offense, punishable by a fine of 660,000 to 1.65 million UZS ($60-$150). This is an important step in the right direction and now support to its implementation is critical.. It is worth noting that many countries that have long established accountability for sexual harassment are now considering criminalizing catcalling - verbal sexualized harassment in public places. France, for example, has extended the powers of the police so they can confront such offenses in the street and issue fines to the offenders. Implementation of this law in Uzbekistan with simplified procedure of reporting and registering of this offence would be an added value to making streets safer for women and girls.
Promoting a culture of intolerance to street harassment will require active involvement of the State, the private sector, and civil society to raise awareness of the problem and promote widespread acceptance of the fact that all forms of violence against girls and women are unacceptable. The popular perceptions shall be shifted away from the victims to ensure that the perpetrators bear the sole responsibility for harassment. Information campaigns could involve popular celebrities, artists, public figures, opinion-makers, authoritative personalities and the political leadership. A nationwide discussion on the subject should take place, with the active engagement of stakeholders from across the spectrum. Installing the zero tolerance to violence in fact starts at young age, and the education system can play important role.
Comprehensive approach and new technologies that can make cities safer
Legal and advocacy measures should go hand-in-hand with the improvement of urban infrastructure and the introduction of new technologies that minimize the likelihood of street harassment and enable a rapid and firm response if and when it does occur. In line with this thinking, and with this year’s theme for International Women’s Day 2023 “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” many cities in Uzbekistan and beyond are exploring ways in which technology can be used to make women safer. While there are many technological solutions to many of these challenges, cities should also put safeguards in place to make sure the technology itself does not become a problem – for example, by violating rights to privacy.
There are many good examples of gender-responsive urban planning around the world that Uzbekistan could adopt and apply to the local context. These include improved street lighting, smart public transportation systems, bus stops, integrated systems of street video monitoring and other elements of urban infrastructure. A recent study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)[i], for example, found that better lighting in public spaces, such as streets, parks, and public transportation, can significantly reduce the risk of sexual harassment and assault. By making it easier to see potential attackers, better lighting can deter crime and make women feel safer and more confident when moving around the city. The study also emphasized that women should be involved in designing lighting systems to ensure that they are effective and appropriate for their needs.
In addition, there are many safety apps available that can be used to alert friends or authorities if a woman is in danger or feels unsafe. These apps can also provide information on safe routes and places to avoid. Similarly, public transportation apps can provide real-time information on public transportation schedules and routes to help women plan their journeys and avoid longer presence in potentially unsafe areas.
While leveraging the power and potential of technology, however, it is important to emphasize that such systems should be part of a broader approach to promoting women's safety that also includes having appropriate and conducive policy frameworks, effective enforcement of legal criminalization of harassment), and shifting behaviors to address the underlying social and cultural factors that contribute to violence against women. The Government of Uzbekistan is taking some important steps in this direction and we at the United Nations Development Programme are here to support the through, for example, incorporating gender-responsive urban planning into our programming, sharing international best practices, piloting innovation and faciliting multi-stakeholder dialogues.
I am confident that with strong partnerships, dedicated leadership, and a shared vision, we can build a more just, inclusive, and thriving society for everyone in Uzbekistan, leaving no woman – and indeed no one – behind.
[i] The UNODC study "Global Study on Homicide 2019" notes that improving lighting in public spaces can reduce crime and make women feel safer in cities. The report can be accessed at https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/gsh/Booklet1.pdf