Urban Design and Women's Safety Wed in Montreal

The first-ever international conference on women's safety brought women from around the world together to share their innovative approaches to making cities more secure for women and girls.

Montreal Metro Station

Photo: One of Montreal's new glass-enclosed Metro stations.

MONTREAL (WOMENSENEWS)-Buses here let women off in between stops at night, new Metro stations are surrounded by glass so that women can see and be seen and emergency telephones are within easy reach in parks and other public areas.

In a pilot project in two neighborhoods, workers at nearly 200 small businesses have been trained to be able to respond to a woman in danger. Signs in the windows announce, “Here You're in Good Hands; Your Safety is Important to Us.”

The goal of these measures and others around the world is to increase urban safety and the mobility of women and to reduce acts of aggression against women in public places.

Some 150 specialists on women's safety from 20 countries and the United Nations experienced the Montreal program first-hand when they attended this month's First International Seminar on Women's Safety. The seminar brought together women's groups, community organizations, city governments and international agencies to work on increasing women's safety in cities and communities and on integrating woman-focused perspectives into local and national crime-prevention policies.

“Women experience city life differently than men,” said Anne Michaud, of Programme Femmes et Villes (Women in Cities International Network), a sponsor of the seminar. “The aim of the conference is to put women at the center of thinking about safety in cities and to develop more coherent strategies to affect safety in an urban environment.”

Canadian Cities Center of Innovation

Montreal's innovative approaches are based on earlier work in the early l990s by Toronto's Metro Action Committee on Public Violence against Women and Children. The Toronto committee asked women to describe what made them feel safe or unsafe as they went about their lives and developed a process of “safety audits” of urban sites. The committee has also developed a guide for auditing women's safety, which has been translated into numerous languages and adapted for use in European and African cities.

The Comite d'Action Femmes et Securite Urbaine (Women's Urban Safety Action Committee) brought the Toronto work to Montreal in 1992. The committee has conducted more than 100 audits of various public spaces and municipal facilities around the city since then. The group-which draws half of its members from grassroots women's groups and the other half from city planners, university research groups, public transit officials, health and social services workers and the police-was instrumental in developing the new emergency phone system, public transit improvements and small-business programs. The Women in Cities International Network also contributed to the city's safety program.

In British Columbia, the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society has published a 114-page resource book on planning for safer communities: “Women and Community Safety Training and Development Package for Small, Rural and Isolated Communities.” A 1992 survey by Canada's General Social Survey cited in the book found that 60 percent of Canadian women are worried about walking alone in their neighborhoods after dark, 76 percent are worried about waiting for or using public transit after dark, 83 percent are worried about walking alone to their car in a parking garage and 39 percent are worried about being home alone at night.

Other organizations at the conference had their own innovative approaches to women's safety.

Bantay Banay (Community Watch Groups Against Domestic Violence), a group based in Cebu City, Philippines, works with more than 3,000 women in 51 cities to prevent ongoing violence against women through community efforts. Women join together to throw stones on the roof of a house where a family violence is taking place, banging bottles or spoons to let the perpetrator know people are watching. If the violence continues, some women might go inside to pull the victim out while others inform the police. Additional women will be prepared to take the victim to the hospital. Police stations have a woman's desk with a female officer to assist women victims of violence and special rooms for abuse victims were set up at two government hospitals.

And, in Quito, Ecuador, a women's group created “Safety Brigades” in communities with too few police. Women created makeshift alarms to compensate for the lack of phones and public transportation; if a person has a problem, sounding the alarm-a button connected to an outside buzzer-will mobilize neighbors armed with bats to scare off attackers.

Women's Safety Is a Community Issue

“The purpose of this conference is to make the problem of safety and violence against women a community and city issue, not just a women's issue,” said Jan Peterson, head of the Huairou Commission, an umbrella group of women's organizations around the world and a co-sponsor of the Montreal conference.

“Women's safety affects everyone,” Peterson said. “If women are feeling safe, you know men will too.”

Conference sponsor Michaud agrees.

“First we want women to feel safer. If they feel safer, they will feel less fear, so they will be able to participate in activities in society,” Michaud said.

Michaud also makes a link between women's safety and the success of the business community.

“If women feel safe they will go out at night, they will patronize the theater, the movie houses, the business establishments,” Michaud said. “This then gives them an equal voice, so they can be an influence in society, so that they can become more involved in government and all male-dominated areas. We see assault and fear as ways of controlling women.

“Everyone wins if safety planning and design is from the point of view of women.”

Helen Drusine is a freelance writer based in New York, specializing in grassroots women's groups. Her articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, OMNI Magazine and numerous other periodicals.

For more information:

Women in Cities
First International Seminar on Women's Safety
(Web site in French, English and Spanish):

International Center for Crime Prevention:

Metro Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children: