By Adela Suliman
LONDON, Feb 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As she approaches her 90th birthday, Shirley Meredeen sits in her flat in a leafy part of north London, proud of the women-only co-housing space she helped to establish, which started as just an idea in her living room two decades ago.
The sprawling Older Women's Co-Housing (OWCH) complex, which opened in 2016, includes 25 flats, shared gardens and communal facilities.
But Meredeen was clear - it is not a gated retirement community, but a self-managed women's space, she said.
"Older women have had lives and careers where men have taken charge," Meredeen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We thought if we allow men into the community we'll lose (our) autonomy."
From female-only housing schemes to dedicated women's marketplaces, projects that cater solely to women are cropping up around the British capital, carving out spaces for women to meet and support each other.
In an increasingly urbanised world - with almost 70% of the world's population expected to be living in cities by 2050 - women-only environments help combat loneliness, encourage female entrepreneurs and diversify public spaces, say supporters.
Inspired by similar projects in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, the OWCH in London's High Barnet area is the only co-housing community for older women in the country, said Meredeen.
It's important that older women live in or close to cities, she added, as they need to access hospitals, shops and neighbourhoods and feel part of a community.
Britain has a rapidly ageing population, with women living longer than men and more likely to live alone, according to charity Age UK.
With an average resident age of 73, all of the OWCH flats are full and the organisation receives weekly email requests for people keen to join.
"We wanted to help each other," said Meredeen. "We'd much rather have women looking after us than men."
Across age groups, however, women in cities face sexual harassment, economic disparities and cultural barriers, a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found in 2017.
Looking at factors such as access to healthcare and economic opportunities, the poll ranked London as the most female-friendly megacity followed by Tokyo and Paris, with Cairo faring worst.
In 2018, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched the year-long "#BehindEveryGreatCity" campaign to promote gender equality in public spaces.
The campaign includes public art by women on the London Underground, the first statue of a women in Parliament Square – suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett – and an initiative to support women in leadership.
But social entrepreneur Wendy Davis, who has worked as an architect, said that despite progress cities such as London still do not take the needs of women seriously and are lacking dedicated single-sex spaces.
The last straw for Davis came in 2013, when a purpose-built women's library in east London, which housed the most extensive collection of women's historical memorabilia in Europe, was closed due to lack of funding and its contents relocated.
That motivated her to start a social enterprise called Rooms of our Own, which aims to build a permanent women's centre in the capital.
"We thought it important to own our own building in perpetuity so it couldn't be taken away from us," said Davis, who had originally planned to develop the property on the site of a disused car park in east London.
Davis' group was in the middle of buying the land, worth about 1 million pounds ($1.30 million), when the decision to sell was overturned by local authorities in 2014 after a cabinet reshuffle.
Undeterred, she is on the hunt for a fresh spot in the capital and says that in the push for gender equality, people have forgotten that single-sex spaces are necessary for empowering women.
"At one time there was a real understanding that any group suffering particular issues, oppression or discrimination ... needed to have spaces where they could meet with each other," said Davis.
"The whole (movement) has been towards making services generic ... actually it's very uninclusive."
Davis' proposed women's centre will house charities that deal with domestic abuse and female genital mutilation as well as offering yoga classes, study spaces and a cafe and crèche.
A WOMAN'S WORLD
Among the hustle and bustle of a noisy east London street market, the traders of "Lady Lane" are discovering that a women-only space can also be good for business.
Selling everything from jewellery to hot sauce, Lady Lane is the first female-only street market in the country, say its organisers. "It's a sisterhood," one trader, 30-year-old Amiira Ismail, explained as passersby stopped to sample her spicy Somali-inspired date and tamarind sauce.
"You get a lot from women helping you with ideas, networking - so it's much better."
Ismail trades at a few London markets but said Lady Lane is "special" because of the sense of community it fosters, unlike in other markets where most sellers are men.
Research by the Tower Hamlets Council, which runs the Lady Lane project, has shown that about 90% of market traders in the area are male.
Since its soft launch in November, the market already hosts a dozen women traders and the council has been "inundated" with interest, with new stalls added each week, said Kirsty Valentine, programme manager at the council.
"(A marketplace) is predominantly a very heavy male-dominated environment, so we're exploring to see if there is any way of re-balancing that because it's important that a local market should reflect its local community," she said.
"We're not doing it to be exclusive to anybody else."
Men still dominate positions of power across politics, the law, media and other key sectors in Britain, according to a study by women's rights group the Fawcett Society, with women from ethnic minority backgrounds particularly under-represented.
Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smethers said initiatives like all-female housing or women-only public spaces can go a long way to addressing that imbalance.
"Women-only spaces are vital as often mixed spaces can become male-dominated, marginalising women's voices or deterring women from participating at all," Smethers said in emailed comments.
"Spaces like this give women a chance to network and support each other to overcome persistent structural barriers which hold all of us back."
($1 = 0.7608 pounds)
(Reporting by Adela Suliman @Adela_Suliman; editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org for more stories.)
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