Gender inequalities in Beirut’s public spaces - Insights from the area affected by the Beirut Port Blast
Originally published on 8 March 2022 | Authors: Roland Nassour, Urban Recovery Officer, UNDP Lebanon & Joana Dabaj, Co-founder and Principal Coordinator, CatalyticAction
The infamous August 4th 2020 Beirut Port Blast has brought into question the city’s planning and problematic decisions that have shaped the city and its socio-spatial construct, including ways in which gender vulnerabilities have been exacerbated over time, making women in Beirut among the most affected by crises. As a response to the explosion, multiple initiatives have sought the enablement and wellbeing of women by providing them with livelihood support, protection services, and by encouraging their leadership and participation in the coordination frameworks. However, a year and a half after the port explosion, rehabilitation projects are expanding beyond the blast’s immediate impact, and urban visions and plans for the port and its nearby neighborhoods are being put forward to “build back a better city”. This should not be done without a deeper look into the relationship between women and the urban space, if we really want a city where women have equal urban rights. A healthy and liveable city, for instance, is one where women can access the public domain as their own, not only for movement and transport, but also for social interaction, cultural expression, civic engagement, and more. In this blog, we explore the gendered use of public spaces in the Karantina neighborhood of Beirut that was drastically impacted by the Beirut Port Blast, drawing insights from the gender-sensitive public life assessment research project conducted by UNDP Lebanon and CatalyticAction charity, as part of UNDP’s integrated neighborhood recovery mechanism.
The project “researching public spaces in Karantina following citizen science methodology” was implemented one year after the Beirut Port Blast. It sought to empower the local community to identify the needs and forms of vulnerabilities within their neighborhood’s public spaces and to develop ways in which residents can participate in the design and co-production of a more inclusive and resilient public realm. We recruited and trained 10 citizen scientists; they are men and women, Lebanese and Syrian, who portray knowledge in the context of Karantina either having lived or worked there. The data collected by the team included the survey of 15 street nodes, using the Ghel’s institute public life tools which we adapted to the local context and priorities. These tools are developed to conduct in-depth observations of public spaces in order to understand who are the groups that use the streets, how and how frequently they use them, and why. The streets were carefully observed at four times of the day, on weekdays and weekends, building a qualitative and quantitative picture - disaggregated by gender and age - of the human and social interactions with the built environment. The observations were complemented with intercept surveys to better understand the street users’ perceptions, behaviors, and backgrounds (nationality, job, place of residence, etc).
Women from the neighborhood played a crucial role in this research being citizen scientists who represent their diverse communities, sharing insights about their life experiences, researching their needs, and thinking of ways to address them together. Through the different phases of this project which included training, data collection, data analysis and consultations, we were able to engage a wider number of residents including women with different intersectional backgrounds. The last phase of the project included a community consultation workshop to validate the research findings and reflect on the next steps. During the workshop, the key topic of women in public spaces was discussed with women and men from the neighborhood equally participating, including members of the UNDP-supported residents committee. The research process reflected our goal of community empowerment, which entails the positioning of women and other vulnerable groups at the center of the recovery process.
The study found that all fifteen streets and intersections in Karantina, without exception, are largely dominated by men, with an average male percentage of 77% and an average female percentage of 23%, on weekdays. The gap grows further on weekends, with 82% males and 18% females. The highest registered daily proportion of females reached only 35% (location 11).
The average of women aged 65+ was minimal across all locations. Senior women avoid using public spaces in Karantina for the same reasons as women of other age groups, but in particular they feel more vulnerable to being targeted by robbers, and more prone to difficulties and injuries while using the impractical sidewalks and damaged pavements. Another point that was raised as a key barrier for senior women to use the public spaces is the fact they feel estranged in their fast changing neighborhood “there is no familiarity, I walk like a stranger in my own neighborhood. After the explosion, the streets changed. They are filled with new people, whether NGO staff, new tenants, or visitors. I prefer to stay at home”, said a senior woman resident of Karantina.
Even the basic sauntering seems like a far-fetched activity for women in Karantina. Indeed, the insensitive physical design of streets is a major hurdle for women’s freedom of activity in the public domain. Usually designed by men, these spaces ignore women’s needs and aspirations under the guise of gender neutrality. But there are also economic and societal reasons for this gap. Women are often expected to limit their use of the public space to certain times and activities that are deemed socially acceptable. A woman who attended the consultation workshop said “I won’t let my daughter walk outside after 4pm. People would talk ill about her. This will harm her reputation, and we have to abide by our cultural norms”. Another woman, however, rejected this argument, “we shouldn’t submit to these pressures and confine ourselves to four walls”, she said. In addition, women’s presence in the public space is largely affected by their job and family responsibilities, usually more complex and time consuming than men’s. In Karantina, most women handle main household tasks, and are busy taking care of the house and family, with minimal time for themselves.
Women cannot fulfill their rights to the city without an equal opportunity to public spaces. They must be able to safely and comfortably use the streets anywhere and anytime, especially for optional and leisure activities. In fact, the number of women and the diversity of their activity observed in the public space are indicators of the health, safety, and inclusivity of the city in general.
Lebanon ranks 132nd in a list of 156 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index which measures gender gaps on diverse levels of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. However, we believe that urban planning plays a crucial role in the gender gap. By designing cities that respond better to women’s needs and preferences, women’s wellbeing is improved, and they are given more options for cultural and civic participation.
To this end, we need to have women take leading roles in the co-planning and designing of the city. In Karantina, the recently established residents committee is playing an active role in enabling women’s participation in decision making. We are also building on the assessment of public space to co-design with local women and girls places and streets where they can feel ownership and belonging. Another study of the use of public space will be conducted later to measure the impact of these interventions, generating learnings that can help us refine solutions and scale them in Karantina and beyond.