Cities around the world are growing at an unprecedented rate. Over half the world’s population now live in urban areas, with three million more people joining the ranks of city-dwellers each week. In 2030 there will be more than 700 million girls living in cities.
The recent UN Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the potential of this rapid urbanisation in order to ensure all citizens – including the most vulnerable – thrive in cities of the future.
The campaign for safer cities
In the lead-up to Habitat III, over 28,000 people from over 90 countries joined a Plan International campaign calling on world leaders to prioritise girls’ rights to safe and inclusive cities. The petition was hand-delivered at the conference by a group of girl leaders from Ecuador.
And the assembled government representatives, activists and world experts at Habitat III did not disappoint. The New Urban Agenda adopted at the conference affirms the unique needs and rights of girls, setting a 20-year agenda for governments to guarantee girls’ safety, access to public spaces, and their ability to move freely in cities. It also states that girls should be actively and meaningfully involved in urban development and governance.
People from over 90 countries joined our campaign calling on world leaders to prioritise girls’ rights to safe and inclusive cities
These commitments are vital, because cities remain dangerous places for girls. Although they do present great opportunities – in the form of education, delayed marriage and political participation – they also present increased risks.
Research shows that adolescent girls rarely feel safe in cities. All too often, they face sexual harassment, exploitation and insecurity as they navigate the urban environment, and they are left out of decision-making processes that impact their safety and freedom of movement.
It is simply unacceptable that in 2016 – three years after the Delhi bus attacks – sexual violence against girls and women in cities continues to make headlines around the world. Lucía, a 16-year-old-schoolgirl from Argentina, is one of the latest victims. She died after being drugged, raped and tortured in the city of Mar del Plata.
How to deliver safer cities
To ensure girls benefit from the opportunities cities can offer, and that they also remain safe from the risks, governments must place girls at the centre of their New Urban Agenda implementation plans – it is not enough to simply state that they will do this.
As a first step, governments and city authorities must make specific, costed commitments to turn the noble ambition of the New Urban Agenda into concrete progress.
Secondly, civil society and citizens will need access to open, accessible, standardised, gender-sensitive data so they can track progress – and governments must provide this data. In developing their implementation plans, governments must also partner with girls, and ensure their voices are reflected in national urban policies and frameworks.
However, to truly empower girls to learn, lead, decide and thrive as they go about their daily lives in cities, governments, civil society, the private sector and city authorities must build on the vision of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.
They must make the right to safe cities central to policies and investments, and they must include girls in all decisions that affect them. As one of the girls in Ecuador reminded the conference participants: “Girls’ participation, and respect and knowledge of girls’ rights, are the foundations for our empowerment and can make us agents of change.” There is no clearer indication that girls need to be at the centre of development – and of cities.