Today is International Safe Cities for Women Day. It's a day you may not be too familiar with, but if you are a woman reading this, it's likely to be an issue you are all too familiar with.
It's when you walk home late at night holding your keys between your fingers, it's pretending to ignore leering comments as you walk down the street, it's that feeling when someone's standing unnecessarily close to you on the bus, it's asking your girlfriends to let you know when 'they've got home safe'. It's that, and so much more. It's the issue of harassment and violence against women on the streets of our cities.
As a woman living in London, I've been groped outside the tube by a stranger who shrugged and walked off. Just last week, a close friend called upset having been 'flashed' by a man on the bus. As ActionAid's latest research shows, these are not isolated incidents. Three quarters (75%) of all women in the UK have been subject to public harassment or violence in their cities. This figure rises to 79 percent of women in India, 86 percent of women polled in Thailand and 89 percent in Brazil. These stats represent an outrageous and global abuse of women's basic right to safety in their cities.
When this happened to me, I Tweeted the brilliant #EverydaySexism, and within ten minutes the police had responded. It's hard to imagine the experience of women in the world's poorest communities, in cities where poor street lighting, dark streets, dangerous public transport systems and inadequate policing leave thousands of the world's poorest women at increased risk of attack every day.
Gender inequality is at the root of violence against women and girls, and the struggle for gender equality is long and complex. But around the world fearless women are standing up and demanding change. We know that the work of grassroots women's rights organisations is the most effective way to end this violence; they are vital drivers of women's movements, challenging the issue over time. And their tireless and persistent work is having a real impact in improving the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable women. We simply will not achieve gender equality and an end to violence against women and girls without them.
Last month, some of my colleagues at ActionAid met some of these women standing up and shouting back in Liberia in West Africa. There we met Theresa and Jimisha who are members of Women Speak, a group established at The United Methodist University in Monrovia, Liberia in 2012.
"We want to break the silence around sexual violence, harassment and rape. If we don't talk about things it means that the men who carry out these acts don't have to take responsibility for what they do.
"I go on the radio with Women Speak to talk about these things. I know some people, mostly men, don't like what we have to say or what women have to say in general, but we have a voice and we need to be heard."
"I have been sexually harassed at university, like most women I know. Sadly it is normal for women to experience this at university.
"I know that there is a stigma attached to these issues and in this society women are made to feel that they are problem, when it is men's attitudes that are the problem.
"Women like me face many issues. We face harassment on the streets and at university but we are fighting back. Our women's group brings us together, like minded women and men to tackle these issues and to bring them out in the open. By not feeling ashamed and refusing to feel shame and by discussing things, only then can things change."
Women Speak is supporting Theresa, Jimisha and others stand up against violence. The group has 50 members and meets weekly on campus to discuss issues affecting women students, such as sexual harassment and lighting on campus.
In 2014 ActionAid Liberia and Women Speak successfully pushed the government to fit lights at the university. Lighting has been put up in the corridors, at the entrance and exits of classrooms and street lights have been installed outside campus, where women pick up public transport for their journeys home.
Before the lights were installed only a third of evening classes were attended by women. Now almost half of classes are made up of female students.
Like many women's rights groups around the world, Women Speak are chronically underfunded.
On International Safe Cities for Women Day, ActionAid is calling on the UK government to fund the life changing work of women's rights organisations in developing countries, so that no woman or girl has to live in fear of violence in her city.
Stand with fearless women and girls to end violence: call on the UK to fund the life changing work of women's rights organisations around the world. Visit: www.actionaid.org.uk/safecitiesbecause
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