Women and Cities
Across the world, we are seeing cities take leadership and action on social and human rights issues that relate to women and gender, such as domestic violence, equality, safety and empowerment. City governments also have considerable opportunity to improve urban governance, spatial organisation, basic services and infrastructure and programmes in ways that better serve and empower women. In partnership with their communities, the private sector and civil society leaders they can influence considerable improvements for women on the local level. A number of the new Sustainable Development Goals in addition to Goal 5, which aims to Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls, can be advanced through these efforts. These include the reduction of poverty (Goal 1) and inequality (Goal 10); and promoting inclusive economic growth, employment and fair work for all (Goal 8) and just, peaceful and inclusive societies (Goal 16). Through improving the position and participation of women, we contribute to stronger, more cohesive, equitable and sustainable cities (Goal 11).
Urbanisation – Opportunity and Inequity
The importance of cities as sites to advance gender equality is closely linked to global patterns of rapidly increasing urbanisation. Urban centres are home to over half of the world’s population. In many developing countries this figure is much higher – and increasing. Cities offer the potential for more diverse employment options, better access to education and healthcare and improved living standards. The allure of cities is drawing millions globally from rural areas. Access to these opportunities, however, is not granted on equal terms. With mounting pressures on city resources connected to population growth and mass migration, urban residents are particularly reliant on cash income to meet their essential needs. For the urban poor, challenges related to access to basic services and infrastructure, substandard living conditions, exposure to environmental risks, high living costs and crime rates affect the affordability and liveability of the cities they call home. The urbanisation of poverty is particularly prevalent in low- and middle-income countries with large populations living in informal settlements.
Gender differences and cities
Men and women experience urban life in different ways. Women continue to earn less than men due to the gendered allocation of societal roles, which segregates women to lower-paid work. Whilst also the case for many men, women have an even higher likelihood of being underemployed or working in insecure positions. This is often in the informal sector. Informal work puts women at greater risk of insecurity and experiencing violence and losing assets, particularly when they work in public spaces. Globally, women spend twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work, caring for dependent family members, cleaning and preparing meals, which limits their time to pursue income generating, educational and leisure activities.
Urban planning and women’s use of the city
While men and women use cities in different ways, urban and public space planning is largely gender neutral. Under-representation or exclusion of women in urban decision-making processes across all levels of government has profound implications for women in cities in terms of mobility, safety and access to educational and employment opportunities.
For urban residents who neither own private transport nor live within walking distance of the city centre, public transport is essential for accessing employment, services and markets. Men and women have distinct needs for public transport use given their different roles within families and societies. Women are largely the primary caretakers of elderly family members and children, which often translates into taking more expensive journeys on public transport with multiple stops.
The impacts of urban sprawl
Uncontrolled urban growth has created urban sprawl, which augments the distance from homes on the outskirts of the city to the city centre. Women are exposed to risks such as harassment and sexual abuse where public transport is not situated close to their homes and they face increased commuting time. Longer trips from home to the city, coupled with safety risks associated with taking public transport early in the morning or after dark, have the potential to affect women’s choices regarding employment and/or educational opportunities.
Safety and violence
Safe urban spaces not only benefit women but also improve cities for all. Yet there is a noticeable absence of female input into decisions about public space and infrastructure. Urban design that fails to incorporate women’s need for safety and security can lead to an increased risk of violence for women. Issues such as poor lighting and signage, secluded areas and lack of maintenance in public spaces present risks for women who need to use public transport early in the morning or after dark. Aside from the challenges associated with poor urban design, the aggressive and violent behaviour of some men towards women in public spaces is difficult to address as it stems from entrenched community norms, patterns, values and customs.
Actions and Responses
There are many ways to achieve more productive, inclusive and safer cities for women. In addition to securing human rights, there are many additional gains for the city from considering women and achieving improvements – the promotion of human and social development, the establishment of stable, just, cohesive communities and the stimulation of economic growth.
City leadership – dedicated departments and programmes
City governments’ social and economic policies and programmes can contribute to improved power relations between men and women, the protection of women’s human rights and moving beyond traditional limited gender roles. There are a numerous examples. Leading Global Compact USA city, San Francisco has a dedicated Department on the Status of Women. In 1998, San Francisco became the first city in the world to adopt a local ordinance reflecting the principles of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Their work includes gender analysis of City Departments, City Commissions and Boards. Their Violence Against Women Intervention & Prevention Program funds 24 community-based agencies to address domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.
As discussed in the previous section, urban planning that considers women and their daily lives and commitments is highly advantageous. Vienna is a recognised world leader in the area of women and gender equity through gender mainstreaming in its city administration. Their guide, Gender Mainstreaming Made Easy is valuable reading.
Collaboration – Civil Society Organisations and UN agencies and community participation
It is important for city governments to collaborate across sectors and agencies. Numerous cities and UN agencies are coming together as Women Friendly Cities. As stated by the Turkish programme, a Women Friendly City is a place where everybody can equally enjoy the economic, social and political opportunities offered by the city. Local Equality Action Plans are developed in a participatory approach and serve as roadmaps in the areas of education, health, employment, participation in management mechanisms, violence against women and urban services. They are guided by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and other national plans and international conventions.
Livelihoods, equality in employment and the role of the private sector
Access to employment and fair livelihoods is critical for women across the globe and is regularly identified by Global Compact city participants as a critical issue for their communities. The private sector is a key player in women’s equality and empowerment. Businesses can adapt their policies and programmes, and develop non-discrimination and sexual harassment policies, to create environments where women thrive. See the UN Global Compact’s Women’s Empowerment Principles. City governments have the potential to facilitate increased access to fair local livelihoods. Whilst not specifically a gender initiative, the economic development programmes of the municipality of Querétaro in Mexico are enabling thousands of local women to develop micro-enterprises and develop financial security. Strategic management of cities procurement practices can also be a mechanism to protect women´s human rights and ensure safe and fair labour practices, as evidenced by cities such as Oslo. It can also open markets for local micro-enterprises through enabling them to become public procurement suppliers, as is the case with the economic development strategies of the Chilean municipality of Peñalolen.
Image: Dance Against Violence, Municipality of Nilüffer