Organised with the Belgian Federal public planning service for social integration

Research from Plan International Belgium reports that 91% of women aged 15 to 24 in Belgium have already experienced sexual harassment in public spaces in comparison to 24% of young men. Violence against women is a universal phenomenon. It infringes on their right to the city and limits their ability to move around the city freely, safely, and comfortably. Raising awareness of these issues is crucial to make cities not only safer, but more equal.

Through the New Urban Agenda and the 2030 Agenda, States have shown commitment to the promotion of safe, healthy, inclusive and secure cities for all population groups. In the European context, the Urban Agenda for the EU has brought forth an architectural and spatial design framework to make cities safe and secure with the Partnership on Security in Public Spaces. Alongside these developments, the important role for municipal governments, civil society organisations, academics and the private sector in organising and publicising effective public campaigns against harassment should also be recognised.

This Policy Lab looked at national and local initiatives geared towards improving women’s experiences and safety in the public space. The event’s aim was to develop a common understanding of what is perceived as safe in urban environments, to share best practices on innovate measures and to discuss the importance of behaviour change in eradicating gender-based harassment.

Expert contributions

Continuum of insecurity

Els Enhus, professor emeritus in criminology at Vrije Unviversiteit Brussel

Women navigate the city in markedly different ways than men. In criminology, the concept of ‘fear of crime’ perpetuates the normalisation of street harassment. However, street harassment is a common experience for most people (88%), especially women, and leaves many feeling constantly anxious. To deal with the subjection to a ‘continuum’ of insecurity, they have to adapt coping strategies. Women’s experiences in the public space tend to accumulate in what is referred to as psychological backpacks which they carry around and which change the way they navigate the city.

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Active bystander training

Astrid de Bruycker, Municipal officer Equal Opportunity, City of Ghent

As a very diverse city, Ghent has taken proactive measures in the realm of gender diversity, such as the active equal opportunities policy for gender equality. With an emphasis on girls’ and women’s rights as well as LGBTQIA+ rights, the city of Ghent developed initiatives to make the public space safer for all. For example. the active bystander training is an innovative initiative introducing courses offered to civil servants and citizens to learn how to respond to harassment and discrimination and become an ally.

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Action plan 'Nothing without my consent'

Lydia Mutyebele Ngoi, Municipal officer Equal Opportunities, City of Brussels

For more than 10 years, the city of Brussels has been taking steps to eradicate street and sexual harassment. Prompted by Sofie Peeters’ documentary Femme de la rue, a series of measures were proposed to fight sexism and make the city safer. The action plan ‘Nothing without my consent’ includes 77 such measures, some of which relate to prevention and awareness through better education and training. Concomitantly the equal opportunities unit fights for equality with a gender-sensitive budget and representation of women in the public space.

The 360° approach

Wouter Stes, Advocacy Coordinator for Safer Cities, Plan International Belgium

Plan International’s Safer Cities program has been active in Belgium since 2018. By using a 360° approach, which includes analysis, participation, awareness raising, and policy advocacy, different initiatives have been set up. For example, as part of the organisation’s Safer Cities program, an online platform, where people can report incidents that make them feel unsafe, was developed. Plan International Belgium also supports innovative projects in different cities and advocates for policies to be developed with a holistic approach, as focusing on just legislation or prevention is insufficient.

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Lack of general knowledge

Liesbet Stevens, Deputy-director, Institute for the Equality of Women and Men

There is a lack of general knowledge on sexual harassment and the Belgian law against sexism. People tend to feel like there is no opportunity to report incidents, which leads to a vicious cycle in which people’s experiences with street harassment get diminished and the problem remains misunderstood. Policy does not respond to the problem adequately. To develop encompassing measures, they should be communicated widely, discussed beforehand, and thoroughly evaluated so that all potential effects are taken into account.

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