By Andrew Fleming
Today, 54% of the world’s population reside in cities, and collectively, these 4 billion people generate as much as 80% of global GDP. Cities are currently the most dynamic spaces of economic and social growth in the world. And women are integral to this growth: they boost the economy, and are at the forefront of industries creating social value, such as caregiving. However, cities are often sinkholes of poverty for women, where gender inequalities in economic access, infrastructure, and access to services limit women’s opportunities for advancement.
Women living in cities spend, on average, 4.5 hours each day taking part in unpaid work – more than double the time men do – leaving less time for paid jobs and education. Even when women are able to work, heightened informality excludes them from employee benefits such as healthcare, schooling, and legal protection.
Gender inequalities in cities go far beyond employment. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 72% of the daily burden of collecting water, if it isn’t available in the house, falls to women. And although many cities are increasing their investment in sanitation facilities, women are still disproportionately affected by poor or non-existent toilets. The WHO estimates that one in three women globally don’t have access to safe toilet facilities – a factor that heightens women’s vulnerability to sexual violence.
Economic and infrastructural inequalities further drive an urban gender health divide. In Sub-Saharan African cities, HIV prevalence among women is 1.5 times higher than it is for men due to the increased exposure of women who work in vulnerable industries, such as sex workers. Women’s health is also affected negatively by their domestic duties. Women spend disproportionally more time in front of indoor cookstoves which produce toxic fumes, and consequently, they have a higher rate of related diseases like pneumonia, lung cancer and strokes.
For cities to live up to their roles as catalysts for growth and development, we need to make them spaces of equal rights and opportunities for women. To create real progress, an explicitly gender-inclusive approach to urban development – focusing on the structural inequities women face – needs to be adopted.