A protester shouts during a demonstration against the release on bail of five men known as the "Wolf Pack," cleared of rape of a teenager and convicted of a lesser crime of sexual abuse in Madrid, Spain, June 22, 2018.
A protester shouts during a demonstration against the release on bail of five men known as the "Wolf Pack," cleared of rape of a teenager and convicted of a lesser crime of sexual abuse in Madrid, Spain, June 22, 2018. Susana Vera/Reuters

With a woman helming the city, Madrid is at the front of a global movement to prevent sexual harassment and intimidation.

In Plan International’s map of Madrid, the sad face icon that signals a bad experience for a woman is not consigned to locations with dark corners: Popular places like Puerta del Sol, one of Madrid’s main squares, are full of stories of verbal and physical harassment. A user writes about how a failed Tinder date ended with a strange stalking episode. Another user explains that a man grabbed her in the nearby station. And some users also tell anecdotes of being helped by other women.

The topic of safety in Madrid is a tricky one. The capital of Spain has a very low homicide rate: In 2017, only 16 people were murdered in this municipality of more than 3 million people, according to Spain’s Ministry of the Interior. But at a discussion on “Making Cities Safe and Inclusive with and for Adolescent Girls” at the Instituto Cervantes in New York last month, an 18-year-old Madrileña explained that if she walks by a dark corner, “I worry that someone is going to grab me or say something to me.” Her male peers don’t understand, she says: “They don’t believe that there’s a different reality for us.”

An organization is working to make women’s reality an undeniable truth, using maps and crowdsourcing. Partnering with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, Plan International created Free to Be, an online project where women can pinpoint safe or unsafe areas, including the details of incidents. The initiative was presented at the Instituto Cervantes discussion last month, with the participation of mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, representatives from Plan International, and others.

A section of Plan International's interactive map of Madrid: Each sad face represents a reported bad
encounter for a woman. (Plan International)

The project started in Melbourne, Australia, a city that Concha López, director of Plan International in Spain, said “is thought of as a safe city, but where we could really see a perception of insecurity from girls and where there is street harassment.” Following the launch in Melbourne, Plan International has replicated the project in a number of cities including Lima, Delhi, Sydney, and Madrid.

Plan International just closed the data-gathering process and is now working on a report that will be published in October. Around 2,400 people interacted with the site and preliminary information provided by the program reports that 93 percent of the participants say they feel gender discrimination in Madrid, while 74 percent said they’ve been harassed in some area of the city.

“This initiative has two components,” López explained. “The first one is to gather data to improve the situation, following the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN” [Number 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable] “And the other objective is to change perception and stereotypes, and make social change, using the direct and proactive participation of young women.”

Many cities have struggled to create public policies that improve women’s safety. The former mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Ángel Mancera, was ridiculed after he launched a program distributing whistles to women in an attempt to “help” them avoid harassment. But the city of Madrid has worked to make more lasting change, spurred in part by an incident during the famous celebrations of San Fermín, in Pamplona, Spain, two years ago. Five men, who infamously referred to themselves as La Manada—the Wolf Pack—abused an 18-year-old woman and videoed it. After they were found guilty of sexual abuse and not the more serious crime of sexual aggression—which includes rape—thousands of women headed to the streets to protest.

In the aftermath of this case, Madrid reacted by creating puntos violeta, violet-colored stands placed at neighborhood parties and celebrations as well as during music festivals like the Mad Cool  festival, which was held for the third year this July, in Madrid.

“We have generated a model that we repeat in all parties which we call, ‘No means no’,” Madrid’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, said in New York. They’ve seen how massive events are the perfect spot for these acts to happen, but they are also a place to provide solutions and create awareness of this ‘No means no’. “I think this idea is already part of Madrid’s leisure culture, but we have reinforced it in all the parties with these puntos violeta.” At the stands, any person that is feeling unease or unsafe or has suffered a problem, can come for refuge or advice. These stands will be supported with other measures, the mayor says.

“We are reinforcing this with other structures of mediation: people need to get used to resolving conflicts by listening to each other and to walk in other person’s shoes,” Carmena said.

Although the schools are not under city jurisdiction, but that of the Government of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, the city does organize extracurricular activities and Carmena is using these moments to promote these ideas. The city has instituted projects to promote gender equality and mediation as a way to solve problems. They also have created eight “Equality Spaces”—buildings where people can find resources and information on how to promote better relationships and stop gender violence. Furthermore, the City created a campaign called “Neighborhoods for Good Treatment”  to encourage better, more respectful treatment of women and they have distributed signs and door hangers that businesses and homes can use to signal that these are safe spaces.

In addition, the city is making it easier for victims of gender violence to get housing: now they can apply with just a report of a social worker, and they don’t need to file a report with the police. Madrid also has a hotline and a specialized network to respond to gender violence, as many other cities have, and the Madrid police has a unit that focuses on these kind of crimes. However, Carmena is careful to point out that this is not enough.

“We know that it is really good that there is safety for women, that the streets have enough light, that there is an attitude in the neighborhood that supports girls and women, but we can’t only link violence to these safety initiatives,” Carmena said. “We will never have enough police officers for this. We need to eradicate violent behavior and we think that this is possible.”

Madrid is trying to become a global point of reference in this area. Last year they hosted an international “Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace,” and will host it again this November.

That Madrid is a city helmed by a woman—Mayor Carmena, has made a difference. “It is quite obvious that there is a sensitivity of women that is different,” says Plan International’s López. “There’s an effect of this example. And after ‘Me Too’ and what happened with La Manada, in Spain we are in a perfect moment for the population to react.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post labeled a Plan International map of another city as Madrid.

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