A young woman stands alone on a deserted metro platform.

“It’s up to us…”

“What does a safe city look like?”

…is not a question we routinely ask ourselves because it’s sadly easier to ask, ‘what does a dangerous city look like?’ For one person ‘danger’ could be in the poor quality of air, for another high levels of fast traffic. And while these are serious concerns for everyone, it is a sad fact that for women and girls all over the world, simply venturing into their cities can feel like running a gauntlet of risk. But perspective is everything – to understand a problem, we need to see it.

Along with five other cities around the world, in Brussels a group of young people were given the chance to show a different side to their city – the way it feels to them. Working with Canon Ambassadors Bieke Depoorter and Mashid Mohadjerin, they were taught how to harness powerful tools – a camera and their own ideas – to bring to life their concerns, vulnerabilities and experiences. They learnt the importance of action and what it means to be an advocate for social and policy change. Then they went out into their neighbourhood and put these new skills to the test.

Each student is between fifteen and twenty years old, so the lens through which each views their city sits on a spectrum. But it is important to remember that the issues they raise are issues for everyone. That said, it’s incredibly discomforting to know that a fifteen-year-old child feels unsafe in the place they call home.

A young man, pulling another man away from a young woman on a metro platform as a train passes by.
“In Brussels, all young people take the public transportation. Some girls avoid it at night because they are afraid of being harassed. As boys, we think it is also our responsibility to take action if we witness aggressions.”

When you consider the issues they address in the context of their age – most of these young people are, of course, children – a lack of gender equality in public spaces and concerns around safety at night are somehow easier to swallow than the very stark examples they give of harassment. Their images are not intended to shock, but the discovery that this is a very real fear for girls of eighteen and under is, frankly, disturbing and distressing

“It is difficult for some girls to talk about verbal harassment situations,” explains one of the girls. “On the one hand, we tend to think that it is not important: we are alive and physically well. On the other hand, we can’t stop thinking of about words that hurt us.”

To know this is important. It helps us to understand that what these young people have undertaken is not just a creative project. This is activism. Their images are the result of education – not only in photography, but in issues around gender equality, the skill of public speaking and how to influence and educate others. They have taken their experiences forward, formed a youth forum and presented at Belgian Parliament. They are being taken seriously and proving that it is possible for young people to drive real and manifest change.

This is art with an outcome.

Graffiti reading “ME SIFFLE PAS JSUIS PAS TA CHIENNE” – ‘Do not whistle at me, I am not a dog’
“Everywhere in the world, boys whistle at girls. This is considered a common situation also in Belgium. So common that we act like it is a compliment when it happens. But doesn’t always feel like a compliment though. Sometimes we just smile to protect ourselves.”

The way to equality is not going to be easy, but we will make it

A girl, walking with her head down, down a poorly lit street with a man following a short distance behind her
“In some areas of the city of Brussels, there are narrow streets. Especially near metro stations. If it’s very dark, it is very uncomfortable. We don’t see who is there and if we are followed it is hard to escape.”

As young activists, we want to break stereotypes and improve the situation for all girls and boys!

A mesh fence. To the far right, a figure stands in the gateway, against the light
“We realised that young girls and boys feel trapped in boxes. As a boy, you must be dominant, muscled, do sports, show no emotions… As a girl, you must be pretty, kind, sensitive… but what if a girl loves football? What if a boy cries?”

"BruxELLES: Our safe cities" is a joint initiative between Plan International, an organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls, and Canon’s Imaging For Good, which supports and empowers young people aged 13-18 years to express the need for change in the world through visual storytelling. All images are copyright of Plan International Belgium – Young activists.

Written by Emma Hope & Machteld Degreef

Related Articles