Fourth and Fifth COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus discuss safety in cities and communities

Fourth and Fifth COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus discuss safety in cities and communities

Nairobi, 12 May 2020  

As part of the COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus Series organized by the World Urban Campaign, two on-line events were held on Monday 11 May on the theme of safety in cities and communities.  They gathered over 125 participants in lively debates around safety and community experts to address the challenges faced. The first session was hosted by the Red Dot Foundation (India), Polycom Development (Kenya) and Colegio Nacional de Jurisprudencia Urbanistica (CNJUR, Mexico). The second session was hosted by the Huairou Commission and held in Spanish in order to engage participants from Latin America, with key speakers from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Argentina and Nicaragua.

As the pandemic makes progress around the world, reports of domestic violence have increased in many countries.  While, according to UN Women, one in three women globally experience violence over their lifetimes, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to become an opportunity for violence to manifest in families, affecting women and girls in particular. All participants came to the same observation in their different contexts confirming that the pandemic is currently exacerbating the problem, forcing families to stay at home and allowing more abuse, leaving victims with less opportunities to seek refuge. As the United Nations Population Fund reported recently, pandemics increase the risk for gender-based violence. In times of crisis, the report says, women and girls may be at higher risk of intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic violence due to increased tensions in the household. In such situations, community structures help protect and support women and girls from the risk of intimate partner violence with the changing dynamics of risk imposed by COVID-19.

Ms. Rekha Sharma, Chairperson from the National Commission for Women, India, explained the practical measures in place to help women get support as facing increased abuse during the pandemic such as through helplines.  While call centers have been put in place in India, an effective response relies on the level of collaboration with communities and police personnel, including building their capacity to support victims.

ElsaMarie D’Silva, Founder and CEO of the Red Dot Foundation (Safecity) a platform that crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces based in Mumbai, explained that the solution relies on awareness but also on better data and organized safe anonymous reporting for victims. “We should not wait for a crisis such as the COVID-19 crisis to act on better knowledge and education on sexual violence. The current pandemic is just revealing the safety gaps women and girls face” she said. This can be done by expanding safe reporting mechanisms for the victims and using open-source data, but also by building trust between institutions and community-based services.

Jane Odyango, from Polycom Development, a grass-roots organization working in Nairobi and Kisumu, Kenya, explained the current scenarios of increased family violence in slum areas where women and girls are particularly affected. With family members deprived of daily income as casual labourers, women are looking for alternative survival, unable to cope with the children, left alone and ‘roaming around’ in unsafe neigbourhoods. Also, slums areas often weak in terms of access to water are potential breeding grounds for the virus. Indispensable basic hygiene is not possible in many areas. As support is delivered, water, masks and sanitizers are not always reaching the most vulnerable. “The need for better data on communities in the slums has never been so clear as we face the COVID-19 crisis” she said. Without proper mapping of informal settlements, it is difficult to figure out where to deliver food, water, mask and sanitizers in the most effective manner. She outlined the importance of community knowledge and the need for partnering with grassroot organizations in order to better support the most vulnerable during pandemics.

Similar scenarios were described by women groups of Latin America, as presented by Huairou Commission representatives Sara Valadez, from MIRA México, Ingrid Ciego from Huairou Guatemala, Haydee Rodríguez, President of Las Brumas cooperative of Nicaragua, Nadine Gasman, President of INMUJERES Mexico, Relinda Sosa, Coordinator at GROOTS-Peru, and Vanessa Villegas from Argentina. Olenka Ochoa, President of FEMUM Peru, who moderated the session brought together a lively discussion around the impact of the quarantine and the effect of lockdowns put in place in those countries, severely impacting livelihoods and creating spiraling effects on domestic violence. All participants outlined the crucial role of organized communities and the importance of women’s networks to strengthen their capacity to cope with the multiple challenges. Also, those communities have been able to put pressure on governments to obtain better support and services in the most vulnerable communities.

Pablo Aguilar, President of CNJUR, an association working on urban jurisprudence in Latin America, also emphasized the fact that urban systems and functions have somehow collapsed with the COVID-19. “The pandemic has introduced a new crisis, one of the basic human rights” he said. He expanded on the fact that in many countries, people are worried about the violation of their privacy with the increase of State controls but also have experienced a drop in their rights to property, culture and economic activities for instance. As a result, ‘in the post recovery period, we need to promote a new legal urbanism based in a bundle of protections for the citizens’ added Aguilar, in order to safeguard their future rights in cities. His proposal was largely accepted by participants who agreed that it is crucial to reflect on the impacts of the pandemic in terms of human rights in order to propose targeted revisions of current policies, based on the promises of the New Urban Agenda endorsed at the Habitat III conference by member states and their partners.

These two Campus sessions on the safety gaps have allowed an in-dept conversation on a crucial aspect of the pandemic affecting slum and informal settlements in the global South, but not only as some participants pointed out. Domestic violence is a pervasive issue in all countries in times of pandemic like the COVID-19 crisis. More sessions of the COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campuses series will be held online in May to discuss current actions on the ground in different contexts, analyze good practices and solutions, extract lessons from the crisis and make recommendations for building resilience. For more information and to register go to

Article by Christine Auclair
Photo Credits: UN Photo/Gema Cortes