Countries across Africa are experiencing unprecedented urban growth, presenting women with greater economic and social opportunities as well as greater risks to their safety and welfare.
Unlike their rural counterparts, women in urban areas are thought to enjoy greater social, economic, political opportunities and freedoms. In an editorial, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) said that urban women are able to “engage in paid employment outside the family, better access to services, lower fertility rates, and some relaxation of the rigid social values and norms that define women as subordinated to their husbands and fathers and to men generally”.
Even so, these women are likely to continue experiencing forms of gender discrimination. According to UN-HABITAT, “notable gender gaps in labour and employment, decent work, pay, tenure rights, access to and accumulation of assets, personal security and safety, and representation in formal structures of urban governance show that women are often the last to benefit from the prosperity of cities.”
UN-HABITAT estimates 40 percent of Africa’s estimated one billion people now live in cities and towns. About 51 percent of these people live in slums. Many governments struggle to maintain services and infrastructure - and women and girls are the most affected by these shortcomings.
Expensive public transport systems hinder women’s mobility, and many are forced to live in poor housing in the face of escalating living costs.
In her paper, Cities through a “gender lens”: a golden “urban age” for women in the global South?, Sylvia Chant of the London School of Economics said, “While women make significant contributions to their households, neighbourhoods and the city through their paid and unpaid labour, building and consolidating shelter and compensating for shortfalls in essential services and infrastructure, they face persistent inequalities in terms of access to decent work, physical and financial assets, mobility, personal safety and security, and representation in formal structures of urban governance.”
In an interview with IRIN, Cecilia Tacoli from IIED said, “The risks that women face with urbanization are related largely to inadequate infrastructure and services,” and the lack of personal safety and security.
Tacoli says women living in poor urban neighbourhoods have to compensate for a lack of services and infrastructure by working longer hours, “looking after children who are always ill as a result of inadequate water and sanitation” and making sure the “family is fed, while living in a home with very little space for cooking and storing food.”
Urban crime remains a serious problem for women. A 2011 study by Action Aid International noted that insecurity in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, “restricted women’s earnings, the sustainability of their small businesses, and thus their empowerment.”
According to Cathy Mcllwaine of the University of London, while urbanization could provide women with an opportunity to effectively cope with violence due to available institutional support and economic resources, often “social relations can be more fragmented, which can lead to greater incidence of violence, as can the pressures of urban living, such as poverty, engagement in certain types of occupation, poor-quality living conditions and the physical configuration of urban areas.”
And despite urban areas having better equipped health clinics and more doctors, the expense of such healthcare often puts it out of the reach of poor women.
Still, many women in urban areas manage to organize themselves into community savings groups, which help them save money to ensure their priorities are addressed.
The authors of the paper Community savings that mobilize federations, build women’s leadership and support slum upgrading say that “although the amount that each individual saves is modest, when aggregated in community savings funds, it is often large enough to attract external resources that allow support for larger-scale initiatives”.
The authors note: “Building on communities’ strengths rather than on their weaknesses helps develop a voice and identity, and these federations can negotiate with governments and other stakeholders to improve and upgrade their settlements.”