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Urban Safety and Gender in South African Cities: We need investment in prevention not just reactive approaches

Isandla Institute | 2022-06-01 | 1045 views

Crime and violence, particularly gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF), is an epidemic in South Africa. Between October – December 2021, 11 315 rape cases were reported, an average of 123 cases per day. It is a well-known fact that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Current approaches to addressing the issue of crime and violence have predominantly been reactive and often focus on increasing security/policing in areas of need after major incidents have occurred. However, this does not address the root causes that lead to these incidents, nor do they address the underlying power dynamics and attitudes that put some (particularly women, children and LGBTQIA+ community) at greater risk than others to experiencing crime and violence. To break the cycle, government and other stakeholders need to undertake preventative strategies, which combine social, spatial and institutional approaches and are grounded in inclusive community participation.

Since the national outcry against GBVF in 2019, government has released the National Strategic Plan on GBVF (NSP GBVF) - a 10-year plan targeting various issues in the national environment to combat GBVF. The NSP GBVF views crime and violence in a holistic way and recognises the importance of a preventative orientation. The current major task is the localisation of the NSP GBVF, with municipalities together with communities playing a key role in developing and implementing appropriate strategies. This includes focusing on spatial approaches and addressing the role of the built environment in violence and crime prevention.

The physical environment is a critical component in the perpetuation (or prevention) of crime. Inadequate lighting, poor visibility, lack of community surveillance, unused/unmanaged public space and buildings all create opportunities for crime to thrive. Women, girls, the elderly, persons with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community can feel particularly vulnerable in such spaces. It is therefore especially important to ensure their voices are included when planning and creating local crime prevention strategies.

Local strategies need to respond to local needs and opportunities. This is where area-based violence prevention interventions (ABVPI) are particularly valuable. ABVPI are spatially targeted approaches that aim to both reduce crime and violence and address the root causes that result in these occurrences. ABVPI combines spatial, social and institutional interventions that range from infrastructure upgrades to community development programmes. They are evidence-led and co-produced (with communities and other stakeholders). By using ABVPI, municipalities can put in place positive interventions that will reduce/remove the risk factors and bolster or create protective factors. To ensure that such interventions get to the root issues and have the best impact, they must be designed and implemented in an inclusive, participatory way, which includes vulnerable groups, such as women, who are often excluded during development processes.

The spatial underpinning of ABVPI allows for deeply contextual responses to emerge. For example, when addressing safety issues in Harare Square, Khayelitsha, colleagues at Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU NPC) worked closely with the community. The main issue raised was the underutilisation of vacant land which resulted in crime hotspots and a general feeling of unsafety in the area. It was also found that within the community there was a great need for youth development and opportunities for local businesses to thrive. To cater to all needs, the vacant area was repurposed into a multi-use development which included an early childhood development resource centre, a youth-focused library, a business hub with space for local entrepreneurs, and a community building focused on skills development, among many others. Overall, this led to the positive re-use of unsafe spaces that targeted the specific needs within the local community. This is an example where an intervention addresses the physical environment and strengthens social cohesion. The combined focus on local employment and social cohesion also targeted structural gender inequalities. The intervention resulted in the space being active throughout the day, which was identified (through inclusive consultation) as making vulnerable groups feel safer within public spaces. Through trust-building and fostering active engagement, it is possible for local stakeholders, and vulnerable groups in particular, to lead ABVPI processes which ultimately helps to address unequal power dynamics.

Addressing crime and violence is not only about responding to major incidences of crime but about creating an environment in which people are safe because of reduced risks, increased protective factors and ultimately increased quality of life. Isandla Institute advocates for the shift towards ABVPI as the way forward to achieve successful, sustainable and holistic crime and violence prevention. This requires local government, communities, civil society organisations and the private sector to work together to co-produce meaningful, context-specific interventions to address the root causes of crime and violence.

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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