Edmonton exploring how to make public spaces safer for women

Edmonton's public spaces need to be made safer for women and girls, according to a panel discussion about sexual violence held Monday evening.

The panel at Lister Hall preceded the kick off of the United Nations Women's Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces forum in Edmonton Tuesday, where global leaders and experts will explore methods for making public spaces safer for women.

According to the 2018 Vital Signs report by the Edmonton Community Foundation, Edmonton had the second highest rate of sexual assault among major Canadian cities in 2016, second only to Winnipeg. The sexual assault rate in Canada was 58 for every 100,000 people. In Edmonton, it was 72 out of 100,000.

Young, Indigenous and homeless women, along with women with disabilities and women from sexual and gender minorities are most at risk of sexual violence, said Lise Gotell, panellist and professor of women's and gender studies at the University of Alberta.

"Sexual harassment and street harassment specifically as problems have an effect on women … by in effect making a kind of statement that the public sphere is really for men," Gotell said.

"Sexual harassment and street harassment affect women's mobility, create fear, and therefore have an impact on women's equality in relation to men."

Problematic public spaces

In 2016, Edmonton joined the UN's Safe Cities initiative in collaboration with Alberta Status of Women, committing to preventing and responding to sexual violence in public spaces.

Bars and commercial establishments are the most likely setting for a sexual assault, Gotell said. Edmonton's Safe City project will focus on increasing women's safety in those establishments, along with shopping centres, transit stations, college campuses, and parks and streets.

"The street is a kind of ungoverned space," Gotell said.

"If you're subject to sexual harassment that does not involve touching in the street or in a park or in the river valley, there's no recourse."

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A study for the project determined another problem area is transportation, including public transit, said Coun. Bev Esslinger.

"Women are making choices not to go out, not to attend events depending on the hour because they don't feel safe after certain times or at certain places. So that's a quality of life issue for women," said Esslinger, who was also a panellist for Monday's discussion.

Tackling the problem

The Safe Cities forum will explore how to prevent the root problem — men sexually assaulting and harassing women — along with various means for responding to that problem.

Edmonton will focus on transportation safety, violence against Indigenous women and girls, and problems with reporting sexual violence.

Possible initiatives the city could take on to tackle those priorities have yet to be determined, but Esslinger said she'd like to see the implementation of an app that allows people to report spaces where they don't feel safe.

"And then you could actually track what are the issues in various parts of the city so you could target investment to improve them," she said.

Gotell said another initiative could involve training for bystanders to intervene when they see someone being harassed.

"Especially if male bystanders step in and say 'stop this, it's not acceptable,' then things could really change," she said.

The Safe Cities forum wraps up Friday.