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OPINION: Gender inequality and urban informality

Charlotte Scott (SouthSouthNorth) argues that climate resilience in the context of African urbanisation and growing informal settlements requires a broader understanding of the impacts of climate change on women to build truly adaptive cities.

Gender has recently come to the foreground of many discussions around climate change impacts and adaptation in developing countries. The fact that men and women will be affected by the changing climate in different ways is becoming well-established.

But often our focus is on women in rural areas, having to walk further to collect firewood or water in times of scarcity. Is the focus on rural woman neglecting impacts in other areas? With the majority of the world’s population now living in cities, the effect on women in these areas is of significance.

Urban gender inequality is an important part of the problem

Ninety-five per cent of urban growth takes place in the developing world. More than a quarter of the 100 fastest-growing cities in the world are in Africa. By 2050, Africa’s urban dwellers are projected to have increased from 400 million to 1.2 billion. The majority of this growth is expected to occur in informal settlements. At the same time, gender inequalities in cities are substantial barriers to development in many, if not most, developing countries.

Slum dwellers currently make up more than 828 million people or 33% of the world’s urban population. They experience varying deprivations and risks, which can include a lack of durable housing, overcrowding, insufficient access to clean water, poor sanitation, low-lying or steep land prone to flooding or landslides and threats of forced evictions. Women and girls often suffer the worst effects.

Women, more often than men, have to walk to isolated locations to use public sanitation facilities where they are extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence. ‘Sanitation-related’ rapes made up nearly half of the more than 870 reported cases of rape in Bihar, India in 2012. Similar trends are seen in informal settlements around the world. Climate change will only exacerbate the increasingly difficult task of keeping up with service delivery as more and more people move to the cities, and climate-related disasters destroy existing infrastructure.

Woman-headed households are becoming more common in urban areas, making up as much as 44% of urban households in some developing countries. Female-headed households in urban centres in Uganda have lower incomes than male-headed ones, in contrast to rural regions where women heads of households are more likely to have urban remittances to draw on, as well as land to cultivate.

Women experience food insecurity in ways that highlight their marginalisation and vulnerability: limited power in their households and communities translates into lower nutritional levels for girls and women. Urban women — particularly widows and other unmarried female heads of households who have less income — have less access to food and other resources that are critical to nutritional well-being.

Women and girls typically take responsibility for fetching water when supply is poor, just like they do in rural areas, and this can take hours out of their day, reducing time for education, employment, childcare and rest. A lack of separate-sex toilet facilities in schools can cause girls to miss class or drop out of school in adolescence. These same processes take place in rural areas, except in urban informal settlements women are exposed to an extremely violent social environment with even fewer safe ablution facilities or amenities per head.

Chittagong, Bangladesh

Chittagong, Bangladesh

Lack of access to clean energy fuels in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Southern and South-Eastern Asia continue to have a major impact on health. Women are more exposed than men to smoke from burning fuels because they spend more time near stoves while cooking and more time indoors with household duties. In urban areas fuels are more likely to include treated wood and other urban pollutants, thus increasing residents’ likelihood of developing respiratory infections, pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

Women tend to have lower rates of decision-making and participation in disaster management activities, and are subsequently often severely affected. Studies on natural disasters in 141 countries found that gender differences in deaths correlated to women’s economic and social rights in those countries.

The gap between the labour force participation rates of women and men has narrowed slightly in the last 20 years but remains considerable.

Why gender equality is an important part of the solution

While women will inevitably be vulnerable to climate change, in both the urban and rural context, acting to promote gender equality is a vital opportunity to implement positive change.

For cities to be adaptive and inclusive governments and policy makers need to understand and address the gender-related impacts of rural-urban migration, international migration, informal settlement growth and rapid urbanisation. When urban design and services— including water, sanitation, transport and markets—address gender discrimination and promote equal opportunities and participation, greater health, social and economic benefits, as well as greater climate resilience, can be achieved.

To improve policies and programmes, governments and urban planners benefit from understanding how disasters affect women and men differently, but also how the knowledge and skills of both can help them and their communities to survive. With disasters costing billions of dollars in damage each year, governments literally cannot afford to fail in the full engagement of both women and men in disaster planning, recovery, mitigation and adaptation.

The World Bank states that studies from developing and developed countries consistently show that when women have greater control over resources, more resources are allocated to food and to children’s health and education.

Furthermore, poverty incidence tends to be lower in countries with more gender equality, while economic growth also appears to be positively correlated with gender equality. Although it is too simplistic to conclude that economic benefits are directly caused by gender equality, or vice versa, the research suggests the two go hand-in-hand.

The World Bank notes in its publication Gender Equality as Smart Economics that women continue to trail men in formal labour force participation, access to credit and infrastructure, entrepreneurship rates and income levels. In low-and middle-income countries, female labour force participation is 57% compared to 85% for men.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) stated in its 2007 annual survey that the region was losing $40-42 billion a year due to the restriction of women’s access to employment and another $16-30 billion a year because of gender gaps in education, while the 2013 report highlights that many of these inequalities still persist.

A yound girl fetches water in Muthare, Nairobi

A young girl fetches water in Muthare, Nairobi

Supporting the full potential of the female labour force in urban areas can bring economic benefits that go beyond a single town or city. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) highlights the “major role” of Latin America’s female urban migrants in “reducing rural poverty by sending money back to their home villages.”

Programmes that include gender respond better to the needs of men and women; climate-compatible programmes are no different, recognizing the different impacts of climate change on men and women as well as the relative disempowerment of women, and transforming the disadvantages they face.

While women are vulnerable to climate change, tackling gender inequality is an important opportunity for reducing risk in communities and nations.

Integrating considerations of gender into medium- and long-term adaptation can help to ensure that adaptation is effective and implementable on the ground. It can help to ensure that the implementation of adaptation activities will not exacerbate inequalities and other vulnerabilities, it can help to fulfil the specific needs of the most vulnerable, and it can ensure the equal participation of men and women in the decision-making and implementation phases of these activities.

We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN.

For more information visit the CDKN project page ‘Working with informality to build climate resilience in African cities’

Or read the recent report ‘Strengthening climate resilience in African cities – A framework for working with informality

Images courtesy of Meena Kadri under Creative Commons license.


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