May 112010

Excerpt from Gender Equality for Smarter Cities: Challenges and Progress
By the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT ) 2010

Full document can be downloaded here

We have, collectively, reached tipping point: 50.6 per cent of the world’s people now live in towns and cities. Developing countries account for 95 per cent of current urban growth.1 Over the next 40 years, urbanisation is expected to expand further in all major areas of the developing world. The number of urban dwellers is expected to triple in Africa and double in Asia.2 In many cities of the developing world, though, advancement and affluence for some are offset by dehumanising poverty and exclusion for many others.

Gender inequalities exacerbate divisions and hinder development

Today, close to 828 million human beings, or 33 per cent of the world’s urban population, live in slums.3 They experience challenges and deprivations of various kinds and intensities, including high degrees of poverty, unemployment and crime, as well as lack of durable housing, poor sanitation and inadequate access to clean water. Overcrowding and threat of forced evictions pose further threats.

Women and girls are both direct and indirect victims of the lack of basic services in slums. The hours they spend fetching water can lock them out of opportunities for education, employment and training. They are also expected to stay home to care for relatives of all ages made sick by poor-quality water and inadequate sanitation. Early pregnancy and early marriages can also restrict girls’ opportunities later in life. When coupled with the current food and economic crises, urban poverty can encourage women and girls to engage in risky sexual behaviour for economic survival, putting them at heightened risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.4

UN-HABITAT helps governments and policy makers to build the skills and capacities required for better urban governance. This helps mitigate some of the risks of ongoing urbanisation, including the proliferation of slums, environmental damage as well as social and economic inequalities. Promoting gender equality is a crosscutting theme in all these efforts, as well as in the Habitat Agenda which sets out the agency’s basic mandate. The year 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of the adoption, by the United Nations General Assembly, of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Today, though, discrimination against women often takes more subtle forms than it did back in the late 1970s. “Gender blindness”– a failure to pay adequate attention to different gender needs and priorities – can result in inefficient services that act as barriers to women and girls’ education, healthcare, employment, decent housing and safe access to streets, parks, cultural centres and other public spaces.

The cost of inequality

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) stated in its 2007 annual survey that the region was losing US $40-42 billion a year due to restrictions on women’s access to employment, and another US $16-30 billion a year because of gender gaps in education.5 On the other hand, World Bank experts have found that poverty incidence tends to be lower in countries with more gender equality. Economic growth and gender equality also appear to be positively correlated.6

Research has shown that when mothers are granted greater control over resources, they allocate more to food, children’s health (including nutrition) and education – as evidenced in a diverse set of countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia and South Africa.7

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