In December 2012, a young woman was gang raped and brutally assaulted on a public bus in Delhi, India. She later died of her injuries. Thousands of people, including men, have since taken to the streets to protest such violence against women and girls – a common daily occurrence for far too many.

For the first time in history, there are more people living in urban centres than rural areas across the globe. Every month, five million people migrate to cities in developing countries, and it is estimated that by 2030, approximately 1.5 billion girls will live in urban centres.

Cities can be places of both increased risk and increased opportunity for adolescent girls. On the one hand, girls are at risk of sexual harassment, exploitation, and insecurity in cities, while on the other hand they are more likely to be educated, less likely to be forced to marry early, and more likely to participate in politics.

To ensure cities become more safe, accountable, and inclusive for adolescent girls, Plan International, UN-HABITAT, and Women in Cities International have developed the Because I am a Girl Urban Programme. The programme is being implemented in five capital cities around the world, including Delhi, Hanoi, Cairo, Kampala, and Lima.

The expected outcomes of the Because I am a Girl Urban Programme include the following: an increase in girls’ safety and access to public spaces; an increase in girls’ autonomous mobility in the city; improved access to high-quality city services for girls, including basic and emergency services; and an increase in girls’ active and meaningful participation in urban development and governance.

From October to December 2012, each of the five cities involved in the Urban Programme conducted a rapid situational assessment (RSA) on adolescent girls’ safety and inclusion. The purpose of the RSA was to provide a snapshot of the current safety situation for adolescent girls to inform future programming, to identify key opportunities and challenges for the programme, and to identify strategic stakeholders in the government and the community, as well as among girls and boys themselves. Five participatory tools were developed to obtain both qualitative and quantitative data, which also provided an opportunity for adolescent girls and boys to have a voice and speak out on the safety issues affecting them in their cities.

Over 1,000 adolescent girls and 400 boys participated in the study across the five cities, and 153 stakeholders were interviewed, including government officials and community members. There was a negative experience expressed by adolescent girls that was consistent both within cities as well as across the five cities. Girls shared experiences of insecurity, fear of being sexually harassed, and feelings of exclusion. They also shared visions of future cities that would provide well-lit streets, and would be strategically planned, well-maintained, and inclusive, with space to participate in decision-making processes.

During the RSA, girls were asked how safe they felt when walking in public spaces. Very few girls in the study claimed that they “always” felt safe (only 3.2% in Delhi, and 14.6% in Hanoi). Limited streetlights create challenges and insecurity for adolescent girls. According to the study, girls consciously planned their mobility and knew the paths that were well-lit and where they would feel safe, as well as paths best avoided. Girls refrained from being alone, especially after dark, in a number of public areas, including around schools, community toilets, markets, parks, and shops. One girl in Delhi stated, “the absence of lights in parks and other public places is a big problem.” Another young girl in Delhi claimed that “we feel unsafe while going to school as we have to leave early and


no company of other girls. At that hour the roads are empty.” The girls claimed that public spaces are mostly dominated by men and they find it very difficult to manage their security on their own. As such, the girls often ask family members to accompany them in unsafe areas in order to enhance their security.

With regard to safety when using public transportation, only 3.3% of the girls in Delhi and 8% of the girls in Hanoi reported “always” feeling safe. Girls reported feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, and disrespected while travelling on buses and other forms of transportation. They feared being sexually harassed by other passengers as well as drivers, and they claimed that witnesses of such abuse were unlikely to help them. As one girl in Hanoi maintained, “I was pushed back and forth on the bus, a man touched my body but I could not do anything. The bus was crowded during peak time. I never feel safe” (Plan Vietnam, 2012, Hanoi Rapid Situational Assessment Report, Because I am a Girl Urban Programme). Further, the girls in Delhi mentioned that their autonomous mobility was limited due to a lack of signage in the city, which limited their ability to know where they were and where they were going.

Girls in the study were also asked how accessible basic services were, including water and sanitation. In Delhi, only 5.4% of the girls reported “always” having access to basic services, while 15.6% of the girls in Hanoi reported having access to such services. Many girls claimed not to have personal toilets and that they had to use public toilets or open spaces, putting them at risk of sexual harassment and assault. The girls also commented on how piles of garbage in the streets can block paths or cause drains to overflow, limiting the space they have to move through the streets. The girls explained that they felt vulnerable in such situations as men and boys would take advantage of them by pressing up again them, groping them, or sexually harassing them as they passed by.

Girls were also asked to rate how accessible emergency services were. Very few girls in Delhi and Hanoi reported “always” having access to emergency services (1.1% in Delhi, and 7.2% in Hanoi). The girls commented on the lack of formal policing or security guards in their neighbourhoods. In Delhi and Hanoi, the girls questioned whether it would even be worth reaching out to the police as they were often unresponsive, untrustworthy, or located too far away to respond in a timely manner. The girls also pointed out that the distance from their communities to police stations means that the time it takes for emergency responders to reach them is considerable. They noted that people in the community often do not help out in certain cases because they fear the police. One girl in Hanoi stated that “the roads are dark and large, if we call for help, no one can help us.”

Ensuring that adolescent girls are engaged citizens and able to participate meaningfully in decisions that impact their lives is of the utmost importance to the Urban Programme. During the study, girls were asked how often they felt included in decision-making processes that affected their safety. Only 7.5% of the girls in Delhi claimed that they “always” felt included in decision-making processes, in comparison to 30.5% of the girls in Hanoi. Due to their age and sex, girls are often viewed as passive observers of the system, rather than being valued as strategic and influential agents of change. Girls involved in the study stated that because they were young, female, and poor, they felt that people did not value their opinions in the same way they valued the opinions of others. In fact, many of the girls and boys who participated in this study claimed that it was the first time that they were being asked about their experiences and ideas for their cities.

Adolescent girls are too often ignored in current policies and programs, and tend to be most excluded from urban development and governance processes. Their voices need to be heard in order to build cities that are both inclusive for girls and responsive to their needs and priorities, and in which they feel safe to move freely. With a rising level of gender-based violence and urban insecurity in cities like Delhi and elsewhere, the Urban Programme is being introduced at a crucial time.

For more information about the Because I am a Girl Urban Programme and the rapid situational assessment, please visit and

Alana Livesey is currently working at Plan International on the Because I am a Girl (BIAAG) campaign and she is an affiliate at the Asian Institute. Alana has over 7 years of experience working in international development with various UN and international development organizations, including Plan International, UN Women China, and UNICEF Canada. Alana has an MSc in Development Studies with a specialization in gender from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and her graduate dissertation focused on the role of the state in perpetuating son preference in China.