Can Habitat III help create cities in which gender equality is the rule?

Months of local gatherings on women’s safety culminated in a Mexico City event aimed at offering input on the New Urban Agenda.
Sudanese women and girls march in El Fasher, North Darfur, to celebrate International Women’s Day, in many places the day’s 100th anniversary, 8 March 2011. (Olivier Chassot/UN Photo)

In a country wracked by narco-trafficking violence, the right to feel safe in public has become an everyday concern for women across Mexico. Yet with Habitat III, next year’s United Nations conference on urbanization, looming as an opportunity to change national and local urban policy across the globe, politically active women’s groups are hoping to change that reality.

Following months of locally organized gatherings — described as one of the broadest such efforts ever undertaken — advocates combined forces in Mexico City last week to discuss how to create cities where gender equality is the rule, not the exception.

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

On 18-20 November, a group representing more than 30 cities in Mexico and Peru that had conducted several dozen independent meetings in recent months met at the National Autonomous University of Mexico for a culmination event. They were organized by the Federation of Women Municipalists of Latin America and the Caribbean (FEMUM in Spanish) under the auspices of the Huairou Commission, a global network.

This was an Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC) on gender, one of 28 such thematic meetings taking place this year and next to inform the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. The UTCs are a special initiative of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign.

[See here for Citiscope’s coverage on other Urban Thinkers Campuses]

Calling the event a “citizen wake-up call,” organizer Magdalena García Hernández of the Iberoamerican Women’s Network for Budget Equality (MIRA in Spanish) heralded the opportunity that Habitat III offers. “We pay special attention to any U. N. process,” she said. “They are respected as valid actors with the possibility of creating change.”

Further, there are several specific aspects of the New Urban Agenda that appeal to this network of women across Latin America. “For us, the Habitat III agenda is very important because it is an integrated agenda,” García Hernández said, citing connections with the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action from 1995, the landmark U. N. agreement to support women’s rights.

In the 20 years since advocates for gender equality met in the Chinese capital at the Fourth Worldwide Conference on Women, violence against women has become an increasingly central policy issue. Mexico City, for example, has been at the forefront of public transit systems that have offered women-only buses and subway cars.

Women at the Mexico City UTC focused less on transit and more on public space. “There are a series of best practices in design protocols for public space under the banner ‘Safer Cities,’” explained García Hernández, referring to a UN-Habitat programme to improve the safety of urban environments, especially for women, children and older persons.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

At the UTC, attendees shared experiences from a wide range of Mexican cities that have attempted to improve public spaces with a focus on illumination, construction materials and bioclimatic vegetation.

By coincidence, this gender-focused event ran in parallel with another UTC in Mexico City on legal frameworks for Habitat III, with the goal of promoting a legally binding New Urban Agenda.

[See: Mexico City event looks at legal underpinnings of New Urban Agenda]

García Hernández acknowledged the cross-fertilization between the two events. But she also stated, “The majority of our audience doesn’t distinguish whether [the New Urban Agenda] is binding or not.” Indeed, the Habitat III network of FEMUM has already taken an active role by translating the conference’s 22 technical “issue papers” into Spanish earlier this year.

Following the UTC, the group hopes to send a delegation of 30 women next year to Quito, where the Habitat III conference will take place. “Women can be a catalyst,” García Hernández pledged.

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