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PiOC & Publica Share Best Practices to Tackle GBV in Cities

Kelsey Carido

Last month, our Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Working Group had the pleasure of hearing from Peace in Our Cities (PiOC)’s  Rachel Locke, Director of the Violence, Inequality and Power (VIP) Lab, at the University of San Diego, and Bojan Francuz, Program Officer at the NYU Center on International Cooperation. We also heard from Publica’s Ellie Cosgrave, Director of theDirector of their Community Interest Company and Research.

Our three guest speakers shared their views on how to best tackle Gender-Based Violence in cities,  engaging in a rich discussion on the implications of the terminology we use, innovative approaches to making spaces feel safer and more inclusive, and how to plan for the  long-term when we live in short term political cycles.

Thinking Long Term

Urban planners and policy makers are often caught in mandate cycles that force them to focus on short- and medium-term solutions. During our call, Ellie Cosgrave discussed what it would look like to look further down the line, imaging whole-system approaches that could actually empower women to make changes in their own lives and built environments. 

“Politically led approaches typically present solutions that are ‘tough on crime’, leaning heavily on policing and punishment in order to demonstrate to the electorate how serious policy makers are. But this tendency reinforces an idea that women are powerless and need saving, and ignores the fact that most violence and harassment isn’t even illegal.

– Ellie cosgrave


In fact: groping, following someone home, inappropriate comments and staring are some examples of behavior that is normalized and not often  resolved by the criminal justice system. “And while we may all be angry with this behavior,” Ellie continued, “most people don’t want their sons put in prison for behavior that has been handed down to them as part of our social structure.”

Instead Ellie calls for a new, frankly bold, approach that invests in care and women’s services, or creates meaningful spaces for cultural conversations about norms around safety. “Unfortunately, it’s not an easy political answer because it appears ‘soft’, but that is an issue I would like to see a city grapple with,” she concluded.

Prevention in the home

The most dangerous place for a woman is often in her own home, where she may live with, and be dependent on, her abuser; but, municipalities rarely have a mandate to reach them there. So we asked our guests how you can truly respond to VAWG, if you can’t meet victims and survivors where they are?

Bojan Francuz took us back through the 2021 “Peace in our Cities in a Time of Pandemic” report, which compiled research on the impact of COVID-19 on urban violence, as well as innovative responses to this crisis.

Part of the report focuses specifically on the shocking rise in violence against women and girls during lockdowns. In response to this spike in VAWG, the pandemic saw local governments swiftly shift support services to digital platforms. Municipalities made it possible to report via whatsapp, online chats, apps, and video calls – even attend court hearings online. In CHANGE City of Bogotá, Colombia the support hotline for victims of abuse,  “Línea Purpura”, added a toll free number option on whatsapp, to increase access to judicial, health, and psychological support services. Crucially though, cities didn’t only rely on online solutions, they also found ways to make discret forms of in-person requests for support possible in public spaces like at grocery stores or pharmacies.

Bojan also pointed to other, non-direct, ways to bridge the seemingly invisible private sphere and public arena where municipalities have more influence. Behavior change campaigns, like London’s recent MAAATE campaign for example, are essential in shifting attitudes amongst perpetrators, bystanders, and even victims who don’t always recognize VAWG for what it is.  Ultimately, by defining and visualizing what harassment and abuse looks like, and also offering guidance on how to counter it, advocacy campaigns can help tackle the toxic enabling environment that normalizes violence – including in the home.

“A few years ago we were bold and courageous in responding to VAWG that takes place inside the home, and [local governments] found ways to reach affected populations. I hope we continue with these innovations and investments”.

– Bojan francuz

The Role of Play in Building Safer Cities

Photo / Publica

In order to help people understand the relationship between gender, public space, and a free and healthy lifestyle – an often tricky and abstract exercise – Ellie Cosgrave has moved away from one way flows of information (think surveys and lectures). Instead, the Publica team, in collaboration with communities across the UK, is trying more engaging and experimental approaches: play. “This allows people to engage confidently and joyfully on topics that are otherwise confusing and sometimes distressing,” Ellie explained.

Working in Manchester, Publica has come up with 10 different games that explore how individuals experience the city through various touch points. These games see participants drawing or moving through the city, using body mapping or street tagging. This has proven more impactful than filling out forms whilst sitting behind a desk.

Photo / publica

In London, they have worked with local residents to create a playlist of sounds of the city at night, which opens up a new conversation about perceptions of safety. “Games are helpful because you feel like you can win,” Ellie points out, “It is more effective in helping people imagine solutions they can then apply to their everyday life, and so you’re getting a whole new depth of experience that is more valuable.” Importantly, this is a helpful way to engage professionals from the built environment who often want to create safer and inclusive spaces for diverse people, but aren’t necessarily experts in gender, and want to be supported – not berated – as they try to address common issues in their everyday decision making.

Women in Leadership

The Violence, Inequality, and Power (VIP) Lab, led by Rachel Locke, has recently wrapped up research on the threats and harassment local elected officials face in San Diego county. The findings shed light on a form of gender-based violence that all CHANGE cities are likely to know all too well: verbal and written harassment against elected officials.

VIP research found that cis-women faced 2 – 3 times more harassment than cis men, and 61% of all elected officials who identified as women were considering leaving their post because this harassment was making it too difficult for them to do their job (compare that to 32% of cis-men).

“To be sure, not only did women face a higher quantity of harassment, but it was more vicious too.”

– RACHEL LOCKE

In her study, which considered self reporting, but also a social media scrape,  women were  receiving more personalized and sexualized attacks, and harassment was also directed towards their families and children. “So often, when we talk about inclusion, we’re talking about putting women into positions of power, but once they’re there, we don’t consider the influence they have or their protection.” What’s worse is that this is so frequent, that individuals were normalizing the violence and failing to track and report it – making it more difficult to prosecute when violence escalates.

In line with our theory of CHANGE, our working group discussion explored how cities can come up with innovative ways to leverage their roles as providers, conveners, employers and innovators to respond to violence against women and girls. We’ve seen how shifting support services to digital platforms can make it easier to reach victims and survivors in otherwise hard to reach spaces; how engaging colleagues in more playful forms of dialogue can prompt a more meaningful exchange; how political abuse against municipal officials can take on a particularly vicious and gendered shape and requires an adapted response; and how long term thinking on this issue could change the way we think about safety. 

A huge thanks to our guest speakers for sharing their stories and lessons, and working with us to help our cities be truly equitable for all. 


Our Speakers

Ellie Cosgrave

Director of the Community Interest Company (CIC) and Research, Publica

Dr Ellie Cosgrave is the Director of Publica’s Community Interest Company and Research. As an engineer, interdisciplinary researcher, dancer, and trained systems thinker, she is motivated by how scientific endeavour, artistic practice, and policy innovation can combine to create a healthier and fairer society, particularly with respect to gender and just climate transitions. Ellie is also an Associate Professor in Urban Innovation and Policy at UCL’s department of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Public Policy and is co-director of UCL’s Urban Lab. In addition to her academic work, she is also an advocate and campaigner for increasing the quality of women’s health services. She is also a broadcaster and presented the BBC podcast ‘Tomorrow’s World’, and currently presents the BBC World Service series ‘My Perfect City’.

Ellie holds a MEng in Civil Engineering from the University of Bristol, with particular focus on sustainability and the environment, and has undertaken an Engineering Doctorate in which she investigated the possible role of information technologies in delivering sustainable cities.

Rachel Locke

Director of the Violence, Inequality and Power (VIP) Lab, University of San Diego.

Rachel has extensive experience delivering evidence-based violence prevention solutions to some of the most challenging contexts while simultaneously advancing policy for peace. Previously,  she was Head of Research for violence prevention with the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. In this capacity, Rachel led coalition building and evidence curation with the UN, bilateral governments, the African Union, civil society and others to explore the challenge of delivering the 2030 Agenda targets for peaceful societies (SDG 16.1). 

Earlier in her career, Rachel served as Senior Policy Advisor with USAID where she developed and represented agency-wide policy on issues concerning conflict, violence and fragility. She also led research and policy on crime, conflict, and fragility and worked extensively on program design, implementation and evaluation primarily in Africa. After leaving USAID, Rachel launched a new area of work for the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, bridging effective violence reduction approaches from the U.S. to municipalities globally.

Rachel’s experience bridges the humanitarian, development, peacebuilding and urban violence realms. She holds a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University, Graduate School of International and Public Affairs. She has also published a variety of articles and other works focusing on violence prevention, humanitarian aid, conflict and transnational organized crime.

Bojan Francuz

Program Officer, Halving Global Violence in the Just and Inclusive Societies team, NYU CIC

Bojan supports the work of a high-level political Task Force working to find practical solutions to global violence reduction, and assists in management of two international networks – Peace in Our Cities, and Gender Equality Network on Small Arms Control.

Previously, Bojan served in various policy positions advising governments at the United Nations on political and security issues. He also co-founded a social-impact organization leveraging technology to bring greater inclusion in cities, and served as a Futurist-in-Residence at the Institute for Urban Futures at Concordia University in Montréal,Canada. He got his career start as a community organizer working with immigrant and undocumented communities Chicago.

Bojan is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow and Jeanne Sauvé Public Leadership Fellow. Bojan is also a member of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellow class at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and member of UN Association of the USA.

Bojan’s research, ideas, and commentary focus on the intersection of peace (in particular in urban areas), development, and future thinking – future generations.


About the Working Group

Earlier this year, CHANGE assembled a new working group dedicated to tackling Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). The group includes representatives from Barcelona, London, Melbourne, and Stockholm, and seeks to create space for knowledge exchange and joint-advocacy on this terrible and persistent problem. Outside of our collaboration within the network, the working group also convenes technical experts to assess what does and does not work in order to reduce gendered violence in cities. Moving forward, CHANGE seeks to support member cities to better understand the drivers of this violence, and pilot new approaches to tackling this shared problem.  

Photo of Barcelona skyline

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