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Gender and safety in informal settlements

Isandla Institute | 2022-04-05 | 887 views

In 27 September 2021, three young women were shot and killed in TT Block informal settlement in Khayelitsha and their bodies were discovered in a passage between shacks. This is but one of many cases of violence and crime against women and children in informal settlements that are reported in the media. Using Covid-19 related terminology, it has in fact been dubbed the ‘second’ or ‘shadow’ pandemic facing South Africa [1].

Furthermore, despite being one of the first countries to provide constitutional protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, crimes committed against members of the LGBTQI+ community continue to take place. On 21 March, South Africans celebrated Human Rights Day, a historic day in our relatively new democracy, marking the human rights gains which we enjoy in terms of the 26-year old Constitution. These celebrations, however, cannot detract from the fact that there are marginalised groups within our society who do not fully enjoy the rights to freedom of expression, the right to basic services and the right to dignified housing.

Informal settlements in particular are highly patriarchal spaces, where women experience generalized violence, extreme poverty, unemployment and poor living conditions [2]. The lack of adequate basic services in informal settlements further affect the security of women, especially in terms of walking to portable toilets alone at night (often in areas where there is no or inadequate lighting) and even in the day, women remain vulnerable [3]. The time-consuming task of fetching water is usually left to women, a clear gendered disadvantage which detracts from other productive activities. This task also increases the risk of women being victims of crime and violence.

In settlements where there is no or inadequate access to portable toilets, the unique sanitary needs of women go unmet. In most cases, even where sanitation facilities exist in informal settlements they lack the basic hygiene for menstruating women. In the case of Beja and Others v Premier of the Western Cape and Others [4], where the City of Cape Town opted to provide a mode of sanitation that patently posed a security risk, the Court was clear that ‘[T]he City failed to take into consideration the gender[ed] impact on women and girls both in terms of different biological needs as well as their vulnerability to higher levels of gender-based violence. All of these are to be considered as a violation of fundamental rights of human beings and cannot be waived by [… ] agreements’ [5]. It is undisputed that violence against women is one of the major public health and human rights problems in the world today. It is a universal phenomenon, which cuts across boundaries of culture or class and which affects millions of women worldwide [6]. However, crime and violence in informal settlements is directly linked to living conditions, access to basic services and community infrastructure.

The government has made numerous attempts in protecting women and other vulnerable groups from violence and crime. This includes the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (2019) and the 2016 White Paper on Safety and Security (WPSS), which advocates for a developmental approach to safety, crime and violence prevention. However, these policies and plans are yet to translate into change on the ground in informal settlements. Jooste and Mathibela note: “… women continue to struggle for equitable and safe access to services and socioeconomic opportunities. This is because current policy and implementation does not adequately consider their rights and needs, especially as it relates to informal settlements” [7]. While government’s response to gender-based violence and femicide has been focused on policing, this is often reactive, and does not embrace preventative measures such as improved access to basic services, nor does it focus on the risk factors that exist at an individual, relationship, community and societal level.

Government interventions in informal settlements have to take into account the conditions that make women and other vulnerable groups more vulnerable to crime and violence. In addition to access to dignified, reliable basic services, such as water, sanitation and street lights, this also means looking at settlement layout and design to make informal settlements safer, more vibrant and enabling of livelihood strategies.

Taking an area-based approach to safety dovetails with the development orientation envisaged in much of government’s policies and strategies. Now is the time to make these intended outcomes a reality.

[1] Office of the President Violence against women and children in SA a ‘second pandemic’ ‘ MoneyWeb (online) available at
[2] Willan at el. 2020. Did young women in South African informal settlements display increased agency after participating in the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures intervention? A qualitative evaluation
[3] Nadvi. 2009. Gender approaches to poverty reduction in informal settlements in South Africa: Some perspectives from the Social Movement Indaba - KZN
[4] Beja and Others v Premier of the Western Cape and Others (21332/10) [2011] ZAWCHC 97 para 102. Available at:
[5] Op. cit.
[6] World Health Organisation. 2002. Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women
[7] Jooste & Mathibela. 2020. Improving the lives of women in informal settlements starts with fixing basic services

Image Credit: Isandla Institute / Eric Miller. 2019. Photo taken in Mfuleni

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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