Op-Ed: Creating safe cities for women and girls

Op-Ed: Creating safe cities for women and girls

By Allyson Maynard-Gibson

UN Women has called gender-based violence (GBV) “the shadow pandemic”. This, like COVID-19, is a public health emergency. Public and private-sector coordinated responses and innovation are required.

Allyson Maynard-Gibson.

I hold up two tracks that are “people-centered”: legislation that makes GBV an offense; and promoting and supporting effective solutions.

On the legislative front, I point to Zambia, which in 2011 passed an “Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act”.

In The Bahamas, and other Caribbean countries, legislation has been drafted along the lines to the Zambia Act. These have some key features:

  • Wide definition of GBV to include physical, mental, social or economic abuse against the person because of their gender;
  • A wide base of persons obliged to inform a victim of GBV of his/her rights;
  • Obligation on the police to respond promptly even when the person reporting is not the victim;
  • Very wide powers of the court, including protecting others associated with the victim and timelines mandated within which the court must respond;
  • Obligation to establish shelters; and
  • Many other practical initiatives, including the establishment of an Anti-Gender-Based Violence Committee.

I want to highlight this meaningful committee because it supports existing community-based organizations, right where the victims live.

In the Caribbean, there is a saying that paper will stay still and let you write anything on it. So, we need to examine whether there is the political will to promote and support effective solutions.

The Task Force on Justice and other NGOs and CSOs have produced reports on justice for women and girls in the pandemic.

There are some key features that support the Anti-GBV Act:

  • Innovate and change justice delivery.
    • Support virtual courts;
    • Prioritize GBV cases;
    • Institute urgent judicial response, including by applications by phone, and grant interim orders in response to GBV, including protection orders, orders for child maintenance and/or custody and protection from eviction from the matrimonial home; and
    • Enhance access to legal aid, public defenders, social, psycho-social and economic assistance.
  • Increase safe spaces.
    • Some cities have given free hotel rooms;
    • Support and create Safe Houses — like the Links’ Safe House in The Bahamas;
    • Free Uber rides — Uber has donated over 35,000; and
    • Easier access for women to microfinance. It is well known that greater economic independence empowers women to leave abusive partners.
  • Reporting.
    • Hotlines and apps — especially those that allow victims to send messages to police without alerting their partners; and
    • Some cities have adopted special hand signals or words.
  • Easy access to support — governments, businesses and NGOs have ramped up communication about domestic violence, including:
    • Special manuals and webpages with safety plans;
    • National hotlines/Whatsapp lines with discrete number dialing;
    • Community volunteers to give guidance to women and children — including how to get legal aid;
    • Apps for victims who need discreet support and reporting; and
    • Pop-ups in places like supermarkets and pharmacies to offer counseling and help with reporting.
  • Prevention.
    • Phone-in programme where police officers check up on women who previously filed reports of domestic violence before the lockdown;
    • Gun locks for safe storage of guns. Rates of femicide and domestic violence are as much as 500 percent higher in gun-owning households; and
    • During lockdowns, automatic extension of restraining orders.

These are urgent matters. Investment in and promotion of these types of solutions makes sense. The World Bank estimates that worldwide, the cost of gender-based violence is 1.5 percent of national GDP.

On a policy level, governments must see internet access as essential as roads and railways. During and post-COVID, “no one left behind” means that vulnerable people must have internet access to services and goods.