UN Safe Cities and Violence Against Women in Public Spaces

The UN Safe Cities Initiative began in November 2010 with a focus on violence against women in public spaces – a focal point for the Blank Noise project.   Quito, Ecuador; Cairo, Egypt; New Delhi, India; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; and Kigali, Rwanda were selected for the project based on their large population of urban slum dwellers.  A snapshot of the cities explains that the New Delhi Safe Cities Initiative partners with the Department for Women and Child Development, the Government of Delhi, UNIFEM (now UNWomen), UN-Habitat and Jagori and a number of organizations have served as consultants in the projects development, including  Departments of Education and Transport of the Government of Delhi, the Delhi Police, women’s rights groups and United Nations agencies (UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA).   The initiative, which places emphasis on technology for data gathering and evaluation, focuses on:

  • Policy and legislative reforms
  • Urban planning and design of public spaces
  • Civic awareness
  • Improvements in public transport and policing
  • Provision and maintenance of public infrastructure and services
  • Expanding access by survivors to legal assistance, justice and other support

Be sure to check out the baseline survey for the New Delhi initiative put together by Jagori and UNWomen, which details key factors contributing to the unsafe public environment, forms and frequency of harassment, public reactions to such harassment, etc.

UNWomen also involves civil society as steakholders in the Safe Cities initiatives meaningfully “in all stages of the safe cities programming, implementation,” such as at the recent stakeholders planning meeting in July 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.  Additionally, their evaluation methods for initiative success can be viewed here.


Violence Against Women Network Hubs

There are countless organizations committed to ending violence against women, and quite a few network hubs linking such organizations together.  For example, MenEngage is “a global alliance of NGOs and UN agencies that seeks to engage boys and men to achieve gender equality.”  Their membership numbers in the hundreds, and they appear to utilize what Keck and Sikkink have termed information politics (in that they share information and hold training sessions for their network members in order to build their capacity) and also leverage politics (in that they partner with powerful actors to affect change – such as the UNFPA for their 2009 Global Symposium on Engaging Boys and Men).

Many of the NGOs in the MenEngage network concern themselves with eve-teasing, such as the International Center for Research on Women, whose recent study revealed that most teenage boys in Mumbai consider eve-teasing “harmless and inoffensive.”

Eve-Teasing in Bangladesh

Check out this video about eve-teasing in Bangladesh, and the “psychological torture” experienced by its victims:

Posted by the uncultured project

The Larger Impact of Blank Noise

I find myself wondering what sort of a larger impact has the Blank Noise campaign has had.  According to the National Research Council, Blank Noise has empowered women to speak out against male aggression, and Ms Magazine explains the community building and sharing platform the campaign has created.  The Blank Noise campaign has also expanded into other areas of India, including Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Hyderabad.  All of this seems to work towards the Blank Noise goal of altering social behavior.

But what about more concrete impact?  Blank Noise has utilized what Keck and Sikkink have termed “leverage politics” by calling upon more powerful actors to enact change, and also “accountability politics” by challenging Indian laws intended to address the problem of eve-teasing.  The campaign has targeted the Indian Penal Code Section 345 which addresses “outraging the modesty of a woman.”  As Ashoka India (a network of leading social entrepreneurs) explains, Blank Noise takes issue with this law because it does not “recognize street sexual harassment as a serious, punishable offense.”  Although sexual harassment is a crime in India, the wording of the law is ambiguous.  Blank Noise has partnered with India’s lawyers and to pressure policymakers to address this serious issue.  Although I haven’t found any specific lawyers or lawyers groups that have undoubtedly worked with Blank Noise, I will keep searching.  However, I have come across a rather likely suspect – Law Resource India, the blog for a “national network for lawyers for rights and justice (NNLRJ),” which is a pro bono initiative compiling legal news and opinions for academics and researchers.’

The use of such leverage politics appears to have been at least somewhat effective.  Most recently, the Indian government has sought to amend Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, making such sexual harassment crimes non-bailable offenses.  Though perhaps this does not exactly call for celebration – according to the Hollaback! blog, which is a “movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology,” the amended law may actually serve to protect the supposed more modest upper class from society’s marginalized groups such as the poor or homeless, adding to class tensions and perhaps fueling a larger problem.

Blank Noise and Information Politics

In the words of Keck and Sikkink, Blank Noise has utilized “information politics” in the form of participatory art, imagery, storytelling, and collaboration in their effort to disseminate information about and mainstream the concept of eve-teasing as an unacceptable practice.  Blank Noise solicits participation of individuals, or “action heroes” as they are called, through social media (their blog, through twitter, Flickr, etc) as well as through clothes drives and art exhibits.

For example, the “I Never Ask For It” project in 2008 sought to challenge the notion of blame and sought to dispel the belief that a woman’s manner of dress warrants and welcomes eve-teasing.   The project called upon individuals to act as action heroes by the following means:

  • Share a photo of what they were wearing when thy were a victim of eve-teasing on their Facebook page and on the Flickr photostream
  • Update their Facebook status to “I never asked for it”
  • Contribute to the collection of phrases in various languages that imply that women “ask for it” on the Blank Noise blog
  • Discuss the issue of eve-teasing and share personal experiences on Twitter using #ineveraskedforit as a trending topic
  • Donate an item of clothing worn during an eve-teasing incident to a clothing drive (that will become part of a traveling clothes exhibition), while wearing an outfit you have always wanted to wear
  • Engage in “unapologetic walking” which has spawned the SlutWalk movement

Spotlight on “Blank Noise”

So what is Blank Noise?  It’s a campaign aimed at mainstreaming the issue of eve-teasing, or street violence/public sexual harassment predominantly targeting women, in India.  Eve-teasing is present in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal and can range from sexual gestures to groping.  It has been traditionally disregarded as harmless and inconsequential, rather than a crime.

The Blank Noise campaign utilizes the Internet as a space for dialogue, collaboration, and idea formation among men and women and across cultures.  It was started in 2003 by Jasmeen Patheja, a graduate of the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore, India.  The campaign goals are:

  • Change the perception behind eve-teasing
  • Establish public responsibility for eve-teasing
  • Explore, define, question, and trigger debate on one’s personal boundaries in public spaces
  • Define types of harassment
  • Define and emphasize clear-cut violations
  • Build a relationship between women and the city in which they live
  • Mainstream sexual harassment as an issue concerning both men and women
  • Encourage and enable women to question their fears and threats (also in the context of class and caste)
  • Generate research through public participation
  • Disseminate information through various means with an emphasis on social media

Hello from Women and ICTs!

Hello from Women and ICTs!  We invite you to explore with us the great potential for empowerment behind women and information communication technologies.  Specifically, we will investigate the Blank Noise campaign in India to combat eve-teasing, or street sexual violence, and other related issues and campaigns.  Explore with us!

The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.

– Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, leader of Burma’s democracy movement