By Theresa Carthy
The theme of Thursday’s UN DPI briefing was the importance of infrastructure to the women’s empowerment movement. Entitled “Women Taking the Lead: Designing and Monitoring Sustainable and Gender-Responsive Infrastructures,” the panelists discussed the intersection between gender and grassroots development.
Speaking from their experiences with grassroots organizations across the world—including in Kenya, Guatemala, Chile and Norway—there was a consensus that the development of infrastructure which equally considers the perspectives and experiences of women and men is integral to empowering women and strengthening local communities. Local governments and urban planners have to be asking: “what do we need for women and girls when planning cities?”.
One vital element is the safety of streets and public areas. Without public safety, women’s access to services, education, jobs and social spaces is seriously restricted. In least developed countries, community mapping and current directories of public land can help women to both access and provide public services to their local communities. Additionally, coordination between local women, NGOs and governments is a key way in which women are empowered and can develop their communities.
Ruth Serech Icú, a leading grassroots women in national disaster prevention and management in Guatemala, found that assigning a portion of the local budget to women working to decrease risk from disasters is necessary and effective. Supporting programs which build women’s capacities for emergency preparedness, encourage their voices at the local and government levels, and use their social networks and technology to bring communities together empowers women while fortifying the disaster management process.
Esther Mwaura-Muiru told her experiences as a grassroots woman in Kenya. When hospitals could not shoulder the burden of HIV, women in Kenya took on this role in the home. As many women developed expertise in healthcare as a result, the government began to seek out their opinions. Women know the signs that a pandemic is coming from their lived experiences, so the government relies on their input to get ahead of oncoming healthcare concerns. Esther Mwaura-Muiru’s grassroots women’s organization brings these women together to manage mobile health clinics and medical facilities. Her organization has attracted international funding for its success in strengthening healthcare services in local communities.
Panel moderator and experienced grassroots women’s activist, Jan Peterson, advocated for the construction of a women’s center in every city. This gives women a physical location where they can share ideas and construct strong platforms for advocacy. A living example of this type of structure can be seen in New York City’s Family Justice Centers. These Centers were constructed by the NYC Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence to provide women with safe spaces where they could seek assistance and social services. While interning for the City of New York, I witnessed how simply constructing these spaces can have a huge impact. In creating these centers, the city acknowledges the barriers that many women face in seeking services in other settings and takes a stand against gendered violence. The panelists at Thursday’s briefing stressed the importance of safe access to services to the empowerment of women; NYC’s Family Justice Centers are a positive example of the role which local governments can play in constructing infrastructure which addresses women’s issues and thereby opens up women’s opportunities.