“Anything Can Happen Anytime”: Perceived Lack of Safety among Girls in South Africa

A novel study conducted by the Population Council and partners in South Africa has shown that teenage girls restrict their own movement in public areas substantially more than same-age boys, younger girls, and younger boys. None of the girls of any age rated any place in their community as more than "somewhat safe." The study, which employed "participatory mapping" among boys and girls in both rural and urban areas, suggests that self-restriction of movement among girls at puberty may result from an increased perception of their risk of experiencing violence or harassment in the community.

Population Council researchers collaborated with the Crime Reduction in Schools Project (CRISP) Trust, the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to explore the relationship between the violence adolescents perceive and their use of public spaces by sex, grade, and urban-rural residence. The exercise was conducted in rural and urban areas in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province among girls and boys in grade 5 (who ranged in age from 9 to 13 years) and grades 8–9 (ages 13 to 17 years).

Participants were asked to draw the area that represented the geographic space where they could freely roam. After identifying specific places within those areas—such as clinics, taxi stands, schools, and police stations—participants rated the safety of each place using the following categories: extremely safe, very safe, somewhat safe, sometimes safe/sometimes unsafe, somewhat unsafe, very unsafe, or extremely unsafe.

Analysis of the completed maps showed that urban girls perceived more extreme threats to their safety than did rural girls. Boys in rural areas, however, felt less safe than their urban male peers.

At younger ages, boys’ and girls’ maps of their communities were roughly equivalent in size. But in both rural and urban areas, the areas mapped by older girls were substantially smaller than those mapped by same-age boys, younger girls, and younger boys. The communities mapped by older boys were largest of all groups. For example, the self-defined community of rural grade 8–9 girls was just one-sixth that of rural grade 8–9 boys from the same school (0.90 square miles versus 5.46 square miles).

The study indicated that older girls perceive more dangers in their communities than younger girls and same-age and younger boys, particularly an increased vulnerability to sexual assault. On average, older girls were more likely than younger girls, or boys of the same age, to describe spaces in their area as very unsafe or extremely unsafe. This perceived threat increases the likelihood that girls will choose to or be pressured by their family to withdraw from their communities. Girls reported, “Anything can happen anytime,” suggesting that they feel hopeless and helpless.

The study’s authors acknowledge some limitations of the participatory mapping method, including difficulty in direct comparisons across maps crafted with few pre-set criteria. (The researchers facilitated map comparisons by identifying key landmarks on the hand-drawn maps and plotting them on satellite-generated maps.)

Using maps to promote change

Perceptions of danger can be reduced by actually making communities safer and more welcoming, especially to girls. The authors state that mapping exercises of this sort, which clearly show how, where, and at what age girls feel their world is becoming less safe—and, thus, shrinking—could play a role in galvanizing action by politicians and community members.

When presented to local leaders—school administrators, police, and community leaders—the maps raised awareness about spaces deemed unsafe and helped to identify spaces, such as libraries, that could be turned into safe spaces for adolescents. In safe spaces, young people can gather, learn, and build healthy social support networks that they can draw upon in times and places of danger or insecurity.

“Maps often have political clout,” says Population Council researcher Kelly K. Hallman, who led the study. “They are a primary language of policy and politicians.”


Hallman, Kelly K., Nora J. Kenworthy, Judith Diers, Nick Swan, and Bashi Devnarain. 2013. “The contracting world of girls at puberty: Violence and gender divergent access to the public sphere among adolescents in South Africa.” Poverty, Gender, and Youth Working Paper No. 25. New York: Population Council.

Outside Funding

UNICEF, UK Department for International Development (DFID), William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)