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Enabling gender equality in cities

Apr 30, 2010

Gender Equality for Smarter Cities: Challenges and Progress is an overview of gender mainstreaming at UN-HABITAT and the issues behind the work. The publication highlights the importance of creating gender awareness in the cities in the wake of growing urbanisation.

Gender Equality for Smarter Cities: Challenges and Progress

Publisher: UN-HABITAT, 2010

Promoting gender equality and empowering women is the third of eight Millennium Development Goals, agreed by the world community in 2000, to tackle the most daunting development challenges in this early 21st century. As populations become increasingly urban around the world, this third goal is also vital to the sustainable expansion of towns and cities.


Developing countries account for 95% of current urban growth. 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.

Today, close to 828 million human beings, or 33 percent of the world’s urban population, live in slums. 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.

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 late1970s.

“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 centers and other public spaces.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) stated in its2007 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.

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.

The publication documents the work done by UN-HABITAT in empowering the women, the challenges it has faced over the years and the successes it has achieved.

In advocacy on gender equality and sustainable urbanisation, UN-HABITAT routinely brings together groups that have more common interests than they may first realise. On the one hand, UN-HABITAT targets urban policy makers and governments in a bid to enhance their understanding of gender issues in development.

On the other hand, UN-HABITAT works directly with women’s networks and agencies to enhance their awareness of the realities of urbanisation, slum growth and the need for interventions targeting slum-dwelling women. So far, the vast majority of women’s advocates have focused on the plight of rural women and indeed, there has been a long-standing notion that the poor are better off in urban than rural areas.

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