Gender, Urban Development and the Politics of Space


Introduction and Background

Gender and urban development are intimately interrelated, and the politics of space are never far from the picture. Recognition that space and the built environment are constituted by, as well as constitutive of gender, has long been established in feminist analyses of the city, even if the ‘private’ space of the household has tended to be somewhat neglected in mainstream theory (see Fenster, 2005; Jarvis et al, 2009; Massey, 1994; McDowell, 1999).

The present article, which draws substantially on our contributions to the preparation of UN-HABITAT’s (2013) State of Women in Cities 2012/13, sketches out some key parameters of gendered space in an urban future which is likely to be dominated demographically by women, even if social, economic and political gains lag behind.   Indeed, while at one level the contemporary ‘urban transition’ in the Global South offers scope for advancing gender equality, given the common association of urbanisation with expanded economic, social and political opportunities for women, barriers to female ‘empowerment’ remain widespread, especially among the urban poor and/or those who reside in slums (areas marked by one or more ‘shelter deprivations’ in respect of services, tenure, overcrowding and so on).  This is evidenced, inter alia, by gender-inequitable access to ‘decent’ work and living standards, human capital acquisition, physical and financial assets, personal safety and security, and representation in formal structures of urban governance.

This complex assemblage of gender disparities requires a nuanced consideration of women’s disadvantage from a multidimensional perspective which takes into consideration the politics of space at different and interrelated scales from the household, to the neighbourhood, to cities at large (Chant and Datu, 2011).  Awareness of intra-spatial heterogeneity is also paramount: even poor homes and neighbourhoods, for instance, vary in terms of location (central, inner-city, peripheral), tenure (rental/de jure or de facto ownership), and character (slum/non-slum; consolidated/precarious; serviced/un- or semi-serviced). As such, women living in peri-urban slums devoid of services and infrastructure, residing in low quality shelter, and constrained in their ability to connect with the rest of the city may be more challenged than their counterparts living in similarly marginalised but more centrally-situated neighbourhoods (Khosla, 2009:7).

Cities as Spaces for Women? Demographic Dimensions

One of the key demographic processes pertinent to the contemporary gender dynamics of cities is that women are increasingly forming the majority of urban populations across the Global South.  This is especially so in Latin America where strongly feminised sex ratios bear witness to female-selective migration over several decades (Chant, 2013).

Traditionally lower levels of female-selective rural-urban migration in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia owe to deeply-intertwined social and spatial processes, such as moral and physical restrictions on independent female movement, virilocal marriage, the encouragement of young men to gain experience in the city as a form of masculine ‘rite of passage’, and poor employment opportunities for women (Chant and McIlwaine, 2009; Tacoli and Mabala, 2010).

Despite evidence that women in both of these regions are now gaining ground in urban labour markets, increases in female migration are also driven by rural women’s cumulative disadvantage in land acquisition and inheritance coupled with economic deterioration in the countryside and the pressures on households to spread risk (Tacoli, 2010). Additional factors responsible for women’s urban drift in countries such as Tanzania include the need for HIV-positive women to obtain medical treatment, as well as to avoid stigma in close-knit rural communities (Hughes and Wickeri, 2011:837-8)

Cities and Older Women

The general feminisation of urban populations in conjunction with demographic ageing and women’s longer life expectancy has also led to a pronounced skew to feminised urban sex ratios among ‘older’ cohorts (>60 years) and dramatically so among the ‘older old’ (>80 years). In Botswana and Argentina, for example ‘older old’ women outnumber their male counterparts by nearly two to one, while in Malaysia the ratio is almost 1.5 to one.

Cities of Female-Headed Households?

Sex-selective demographic ageing, and its association with widowhood, has undoubtedly contributed to upward levels of female household headship in recent decades. In urban Latin America, for example, households headed by women rose by a mean of 9.8 percentage points between the late 1980s and the end of the first decade of the 21st century (Chant, 2013). Other reasons commonly mooted for rising proportions of female-headed households in towns and cities include greater access by urban women to employment and independent earnings, and to land and property, and lessened control by patriarchal kinship systems (see Bradshaw, 1995; Chant, 1997; Safa, 1995).

Cities, Gender and Fertility

While declining fertility is an integral aspect of the demographic transition, and is regarded by some as conducive to women’s progressive ‘emancipation’ as well as fundamental to urbanisation (Dyson, 2010), issues of scale and differences among women are immensely significant. Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) are routinely higher among poorer groups of the population than in wealthier urban neighbourhoods.  In urban Bangladesh, for example, the TFR in slums is 2.5 compared with 1.9 in non-slum settlements (Schurmann, 2009). These differences are commonly attributed to uneven information and access to family planning. Disturbingly, early fertility is frequently associated with school drop-out among adolescent girls which has knock-on effects on their prospects of jobs and lifetime earnings. These compound a generally persistent and widespread gender gap in the acquisition of ‘human capital’ such as education, and vocational skills and training.

Gender Disparities in Human Capital

Despite some narrowing of gender gaps in education in recent decades, women constitute approximately two-thirds of 774 million adult illiterates worldwide (UN-DESA, 2010:43).  Among contemporary generations of girls, completion of education (especially at secondary and tertiary levels) is often also disproportionately low. Although urban girls tend to be more advantaged than their rural counterparts, this is not necessarily the case for all. For households with scarce resources, educating girls is often a low priority, especially where their labour is needed for domestic chores or for small-scale income-generating activities (Hughes and Wickeri, 2011:889; Jones and Chant, 2009). For girls who reside in slums, prospects of after-school study may be thwarted by lack of space, peace, light, and other basic infrastructure. In Delhi, for example, the proportion of women with no education or less than five years of schooling is 57% in slums, compared with 28% in non-slum areas, and in Kolkata the respective levels are 51% versus 28% (Gupta et al, 2009).

Gendered Divisions of Labour in the Urban Economy

Leading on from the above, gender gaps remain significant in urban labour markets in respect of the occupations in which women and men are engaged and on what basis, notably ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, part-time or full-time, and so on. Although women’s involvement in remunerated activity has risen substantially, this has not been accompanied by a notable increase in men’s participation in unpaid domestic labour or carework (see Elson, 1999). As such, women continue to bear the weight of a‘reproduction tax’ (Palmer, 1992), which combines with other discriminatory processes within the home and in the labour market to limit the type of income-generating options available to women as well as leading to a lower value being placed on ‘women’s work’ (Perrons and Plomien, 2010).

Gender Divisions in ‘Formal’ Employment

In formal economic sectors such as manufacturing, women tend only to be recruited in labour intensive assembly, commonly in ‘offshore’ multinational branch plants where preference for women workers is predicated on women’s assumed docility, reliability, and capacity to work more efficiently than men for lower rates of pay (Elson and Pearson, 1981; also UN Women, 2011:35).

Although new sectors such as ICT nominally offer scope for a more level playing field, there is little evidence that women are making as much headway as their male counterparts.  Although some women, especially those who are educated and able to speak English, have been able to secure niches in comparatively well-remunerated occupations in the digital economy, such as in call centre work, the bulk are concentrated in low-end occupations such as data entry (UNRISD, 2010).

For the many women who are excluded from the ‘formal’ economy, the only option is ‘informal’ employment which has conventionally encompassed own-account entrepreneurship, sub-contracted labour, and work in small-scale ‘family’ businesses.  Informal workers generally operate beyond the remit of labour and social security legislation and suffer precarious working conditions, a situation which has worsened since the debt crisis of the 1980s during which the ‘feminisation of labour’ has run parallel to an ‘informalisation of labour’ across the Global South.

The Gendering of the Informal Economy

Although men also work informally, women tend to fare worse on account of their restricted use of space, their lower levels of skills and work experience, limited access to start-up capital, and their under- or un-paid roles in ‘family enterprises’ (Chant and Pedwell, 2008; Chen et al, 2004; see also Figure 1). As a result of additional constraints on women’s spatial mobility arising from moral and social norms, and reproductive ties, their informal economic activities are commonly based at home.

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