Citizen action as a catalyst for change in the New Urban Agenda

By Thea Shahrokh, Institute of Development Studies and Joanna Wheeler, Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation

“... the money which we get ...was helping us do things, but because we are doing this thing for our community, we must try to help ourselves... Your child, your children, get raped, it is not somebody else's child, it is your child. So, you get abused from your husband, so you have to stand up. So we are trying our best to do it." (woman, community activist, Khayelitsha, South Africa)

Violence exists in many forms in the city: in people's homes, in schools, on streets, in spaces public, private, and intimate. Everyone who lives in the city has a stake in making that city safer but to make the city more just and equitable; we must also consider how the most marginalised urban groups trigger positive social change. In every situation where violence is happening, there is also the possibility for someone to intervene to stop that violence. Just and equitable cities need everyday activists who are committed to making change happen as much as they need reformed police services, fair court systems, and accessible public spaces. As the World Urban Forum 2014 meets to discuss how to achieve 'a safe city as a just and equitable city' it's time to recognise the importance of the difference that citizens in marginalised communities can make.

In the urban context, violence is often a means of getting access to scarce resources, political power, and drugs, as well as used to enforce discriminatory social norms such as those surrounding gender, age, race, religion and ethnicity. Many initiatives and approaches to addressing this violence tend to focus on security sector reform and policing, infrastructure and livelihoods, which are important. But the role of citizens living in slums, informal settlements, and housing estates in acting to stop violence, and promoting peaceful relations is less understood and supported. Delegates to the World Urban Forum should consider how a sense of democratic citizenship and the ability to act on that citizenship at the local level contributes to reducing different types of urban violence.

Agency and citizenship in a context of gender-based violence

A recent pilot evaluation in the informal settlement of Khayelitsha, Cape Town undertaken by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (Cape Town, South Africa), and the Institute of Development Studies (Brighton, UK) set out to explore how citizenship and agency among community activists can be fostered in contexts of urban violence at the local level.

The approach in this evaluation was to assess the role of community activists in addressing gender-based violence by understanding them as individuals, with relationships, aspirations, and histories. An in-depth understanding of the life choices and life chances of community activists meant that we were able to get insight into what enables people to take action against violence, within their homes, communities, and cities, and why. This required seeing those living in contexts of violence as potential active citizens, who are able to claim their rights to security and demand greater accountability as well as act directly to mitigate violence.

The oral testimonies collected through this evaluation point to the importance of understanding activism as a journey for which there is not a prescribed path or set of steps. The lives of individual activists are as complex as the situations in which they live and work. And yet, this evaluation has identified some important trends and patterns within these life trajectories. Policy and programme interventions aimed at reducing violence, and particularly gender-based violence in urban contexts, need to give greater attention to what enables, sustains, and inhibits activism outside of the boundaries of particular projects. In the long term, the contributions that these local activists can make to greater security and justice can be substantial.

Sustaining agency for safe, just and equitable cities

This evaluation shows some of the factors that can contribute to sustaining agency to reduce and address urban violence. For activists, the personal costs and risks involved in taking action can be balanced to a certain extent through ongoing support and attention to emotional well-being. If this relational aspect is addressed alongside the means for dignified livelihoods, activists can make sustained contributions to social development that contributes to violence reduction. While all these aspects are not within the purview of one particular programme or policy, if there are significant gaps it is likely to undermine the potential for agency that builds citizenship and responsive governance.

The testimonies of activists show how they build power with others through networks for action that connect them to other committed individuals within and outside the township. Sustained activism connected to wider networks can in turn support a process of constructing citizen action that is grounded in local identity.

"We train this group that they must stand for themselves, before you go to the police station, because if this man wants to change or to get help then he must goes to the centre. Unless he doesn't want to get help so, he must go to the police station to get help from there. Because what you want from him, is that you don't want for him to be arrested, but you want him to change, in how he feels. Because what we want is we want to change the social norm, we want to change the negative social norm that is what we want to do, what we are trying to do, because the problem is the social norm in our communities." (Woman, Community Activist, Khayelitsha)

Citizen action against violence that is informed by the local context, its constraints and possibilities is more sustainable and will have greater impact when combined with external interventions that address wider systemic issues. Shifts in the responsiveness and accountability of institutions responsible for addressing violence and its underlying causes require locally-relevant and continued citizen action. The testimonies of the activists in this pilot provide insight into how this can happen.

"What makes them change the attitude, because we go to them to the police station, and train them what prevention is all about, we want to educate them, because the abuse is falling under them. They have to work with abuse so we are helping them try to stop violence. So if they want this violence to go away or be better than this they must work with us, we just involve them." (Woman, Community Activist, Khayelitsha)

Read the executive summary from this evaluation pilot here. A full report will be published in May 2014 at – please contact lead researchers Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler for more information.

Photo: Main entrance to a township in South Africa. There are many sources of insecurity in the township. Photo credit: Creative Commons attribution and share-alike, SLF 2012.

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