Now is the Time to Reverse Urban Gender Inequalities

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.

Ensuring that all urban development and service delivery interventions, such as shelter options, healthcare, education, and job programs, recognize the different implications they have for women and men will create new opportunities for women to participate more equally in city life.

The private sector also has a strong role to play in expanding business support services and mentoring for female owned and operated SMEs, and establishing preferential hiring schemes for female employees. And as importantly, local governments need to be further supported to establish gender-inclusive policies that promote and protect women’s access to urban services and opportunities.

One of the first steps towards creating gender-inclusive cities needs to be collecting better data. Currently, the limited amount of urban datasets that track and trend data on gender means that it is extremely hard to target gender-specific programs appropriately. According to the Hunger Report, 92% of gender specific economic data is missing from Sub-Saharan Africa.  Having more data would help better structure and target new interventions, while also increasing their overall effectiveness.  To support this, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recently announced a new $80 million fund to reduce the gaps in gender data around the world.

Empowering women as leaders of urban development would help to ensure stronger levels of community buy-in for new equality initiatives. It would also assist programs to avoid unintended negative side-effects, like increased household burdens and higher levels of individual debt, from otherwise well-intentioned programs, such as Conditional Cash Transfers and microfinance loans for women. Women should also be empowered as leaders of urban research: community social audits have shown to be incredibly powerful tools to better inform gender-based strategies through data and experience, while simultaneously acknowledging and promoting women’s voices in policy decisions.

Reversing gender inequality in cities will pay off in a big way. Beyond the many ways gender equality would benefit women individually and at the household level, it also has substantial benefits for countries and regions. In Nigeria, if women were able to participate fully in the economy, the country’s GDP would grow by $258 billion dollars by 2025. And if the amount of unpaid work women complete in cities were to reduced by just 1.5 hours, female labor force participation would increase by 10%. Cities should be at the forefront of realizing these economic gains through gender-inclusive development strategies.

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