Gender equality

For women, urbanisation can facilitate: increased legal protection; the narrowing of gender gaps in primary schooling and higher university attendance; improved access to services and infrastructure; greater employment opportunities; and a relaxation of gendered socio-cultural restrictions compared with rural settings (Chant, 2013; Klugman et al., 2014; Chen & Skinner, 2014).

However, women and girls are more likely to live in poverty, to experience discrimination and to be marginalised in urban governance processes (IWPR, 2015). ActionAid (2013) highlight that the lack of public services and the controls imposed on women limit their autonomy both within and outside the home. Barriers to inclusion and participation include (ibid.):

  • absence of labour and citizen rights, reducing access to employment opportunities and services;
  • unequal access to education;
  • gendered challenges to health and well-being, such as increased vulnerability to gender-based violence (GBV) and natural disasters;
  • legal restrictions, especially discriminatory property rights, that limit women’s full participation and independence;
  • a division of labour that holds women responsible for unpaid family care and domestic work responsibilities, while also demanding their involvement in paid employment;
  • time poverty resulting from double duties at home and work, limit women’s access to the public sphere.

The growth of the informal economy and settlements affects women disproportionately, not only because they are generally poorer than men, but also because they lack decision-making opportunities and experience greater difficulty accessing resources and services tailored to their needs (UN-Habitat, 2015c). These barriers contribute to the range of obstacles women face in participating in social, economic and political processes.

Urban governance can help address some of these challenges. Gender-sensitive governance involves both the substantive representation of women in urban decision-making and enhanced awareness and understanding of gender-specific needs within the governance structure (Beall, 1996). It is seen as elevating women’s voices and participation in decision-making and their agency to effect change. It identifies gaps in policy and service provision that disproportionately affect women, acknowledging their unique contribution to urban settings in the formation of policy responses. It involves the meaningful interaction of government representatives with grassroots women’s movements and civil society groups that actively advocate on women’s issues and gender equality (ibid.). Strategies to meaningfully increase women’s voice and agency include (IWPR, 2015):

  • collective action, for example through unions, CBOs, social justice movements and the use of technology and social media, to enable women to access social, economic and political resources;
  • gender quotas at local, regional and national levels;
  • well-resourced and strategically located governmental bodies, such as parliamentary caucuses or bureaucratic offices, dedicated to the advancement of women’s interests;
  • political literacy training for women;
  • increased financial resources and support for women running for public office;
  • improved social support such as childcare.

Experience of empowering women within urban governance structures demonstrates a need to pay particular attention to the gendered ways in which power is exercised (IWPR, 2015). Women may remain excluded if policies do not address normalised forms of exclusion, violence and inequality in patriarchal societies (ActionAid, 2013). While it is difficult for the state to eradicate deeply embedded gender norms, it must pay attention to their effects in shaping existing patterns of authority, power and legitimacy. This involves more than ‘making space’ for women within the official structures of urban development projects. It requires the capacity and will to support women’s autonomy in the complex landscape of governance-as-practised (Williams et al., 2015).