12/03/2013 02:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

When the City Is a 'War Zone'

It was a bright and sunny morning, in the middle of lower Manhattan. I was out for a stroll, energized by the rhythm of the city.

As I breathed in the sights and sounds, I was jolted to a harsh reality: Out of nowhere, my chest was being groped by a male passerby, his outstretched arm like a hunter stalking fleshy prey. It felt like an out-of-body experience, as if my body were no longer my own.

By the time I recovered my wits enough to scream, my "hunter" had disappeared around the corner, nothing more than an anonymous male backside.

I patted myself down.

All body parts were still there, but I was mentally shaken. I never reported the incident and never walked on that street again, joining the ranks of millions of women and girls who plan their daily routes to avoid certain harassment, or worse.

For many women and girls, the city is a hostile environment, to be negotiated "as delicately as a war zone." A trip down this or that street, a turn around the wrong corner can be like stepping on a landmine. Strategy, timing, and carefully planned routing can mean the difference between a normal trip, and a sudden verbal or physical explosion.

Women react by hiding their bodies, avoiding eye contact, or re-routing their entire trip to avoid known problematic areas. Many suffer in silence through a daily barrage of verbal or physical abuse, blaming themselves for somehow bringing them on. We think that if we dress or act differently, we may avoid an unsavory fate.

But sexual violence is not about attraction, but about power. Even women who covered from head-to-toe face similar fates. In Egypt, for example, where street based sexual harassment has been called a "cancer," a recent UN study concludes that the majority of victims were modestly dressed.

The reality is that sexual harassment is universal, drastically impacting women's comfort and confidence in public spaces. Its labels, from "cat calling" in the U.S. to "wolf whistling" in the UK suggest the dehumanizing nature of its mission. In India, it is euphemized as "eve teasing," suggesting innocent flirtation and fun, while absolving the perpetrator from blame. As we have seen from recent high-profile crimes in India, a culture which tolerates "eve teasing," can lead to a society in which rape and deadly violence against women runs rampant.

Movement developing

2013-12-02-kickass2.jpg There is no doubt that gender is a key factor associated with fear in public spaces. What is lesser known is that for more than 20 years, a movement has been developing to fight that fear.

It began in the 1990s with the advent of the "Women's safety audit," a tool for women to critically evaluate their environment. Pioneered in Canada, but now used in cities around the world, the first safety audits were decidedly low tech: They engaged women in "mapping out" their surroundings, with a pencil and paper checklist. A group of local women would walk through a space observing and recording urban characteristics, from poor lighting to obscured walking routes, which made them feel insecure.

Once factors were identified, concrete changes were recommended to local government and policy makers.

Safety audits broke new ground in more than one way: Women began to take "ownership" of public spaces -- often their own neighborhoods -- and to participate in local decision-making. Whereas many internalized their fear, the very fact of working together with other local woman made them feel less alone. And by actively mapping the objects of their fear, and participating in the city planning process, they gained greater security and control.

Safety audits "on steroids"

In the year 2013, new technologies are taking the place of pen and paper safety audits. Smart phones, phone apps, new GPS navigation tools, and the advent of crowd sourcing are being used to identify and address safety concerns.

Mobile tools are being used to provide locations of resources for violence survivors, as well as information about their rights. Online tools allow users to anonymously share and report harassment experiences.

And a new crowd sourced tool my team is developing called WEGO: Together for Safer Cities , allows women to obtain personal safety information reported by the member community, as they walk down the street. Kind of like a women's safety audit "on steroids", users report areas where they feel comfortable or not, and why.

Data is aggregated onto a color coded map, allowing users to plan their routes accordingly, in real time. In the long run, trends can be analyzed and patterns discerned.

If only I had such a tool on my New York jaunt, I might have spared others the same fate. And I could have participated in the growing movement of women taking back the streets to collectively build safer cities.

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