Michelle Bachelet: “It’s Not Part of Life”


Maria Madalena Barbosa has been forced to give up her job as a nurse to escort her daughter Scarlett Rayssa to and from school after Rayssa narrowly escaped being abducted. Their home town, Cabo de Santo Agostinho in north-east Brazil has been transformed and the public spaces dominated by the thousands of single men who have arrived to work on infrastructure development projects, has resulted in soaring incidences of sexual harassment, attacks and drug use.
Photo: Danielle Peck, courtesy of ActionAid

Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, was in town last week for the announcement that Dublin has signed on to the UN Global Safe Cities Initiative, making it the first city in the developed world to do so.

Speaking at the launch of Action Aid’s photography exhibition, Women and the City – The Right to Urban Safety and Equality, Bachelet stressed the fact that, as long as women around the world continue to face violence, harassment and discrimination, poverty cannot be eradicated.

“I’m not sure how much anyone in Dublin talks about harassment on the street and on the bus, but I’m sure it happens,” said Bachelet when discussing women in developing countries for whom the threat of physical and sexual violence is a constant reality when commuting to much-needed jobs in factories. “Some people say it’s just a part of life,” she continued. “It’s not part of life.”

At this, people around the room could be seen nodding in agreement. There were women in attendance from a variety of countries and socio-economic backgrounds, and every one of them had a story of experiencing harassment too terrifying to be passed off as a part of life.

One of the photographs in the Action Aid exhibition was of a woman in Brazil who quit her job as a nurse so she could escort her teenage daughter to and from school each day after the girl narrowly escaped abduction. This family is forced to make significant sacrifices so their daughter can have access to better opportunities. For many, this loss of income would impoverish the family, and removing the girl from school or simply risking her abduction would be the only feasible solutions. It’s infuriating that street harassment in one of its more extreme forms has cost so many families so much, forcing them to choose between economic survival and their daughters’ educations and futures.

A blank board at the exhibition invites attendees to write what a safe city means to them. On opening night, there were already dozens of cards stating things like, “Being able to walk alone without fear,” and “Not needing to text that I’m home safe.”

Two young girls in school uniforms, both under eight or nine, dictated their responses to their mother. “A safe city has lots of Gardai all around,” said the older one. We’re raised to trust the police will protect us in the unlikely event we ever encounter bad guys with weapons. Nobody warns us of the more pervasive forms of harassment we’re guaranteed to encounter and how to fight back against the most innocuously powerful of weapons: words.

The Women and the City – The Right to Urban Safety and Equality photography exhibition will be on in Wood Quay Venue through March 1. Admission is free.

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