Women’s Right to the City: Reflections on Inclusive Urban Planning

By |2023-12-19T15:22:02+01:00June 7th 2017|Gender and Inequalities, Integrated Planning|

Traditional city design and planning often fails to recognise the complex and unequal relations between men and women in our society, says URBANET’s author Ana Falú. While women’s right to the city was largely left unattended until the recent past, it is important to understand that women have always been active participants in the building of cities. Still, many challenges remain. The progress and success of city policies depends on the capacity to ensure equal conditions and opportunities for people of all genders. 

Whose city?

For more than three decades now, organisations, networks and groups of feminists, female scholars, and women politicians have uncovered the ways in which the traditional forms of designing and planning city policies and actions neglect women. Traditional city design and planning often fails to recognise the complex and unequal relations between men and women in our society. While women’s right to the city was largely left unattended until the recent past, it is important to recognise that women have always been active participants in the building of cities. They have taken part in the shaping of human settlements by ensuring better habitat conditions as well as the building, improvement and maintenance of such settlements. This is especially true for women’s social movements that have often successfully demanded women’s rights to land, housing and services.

The social and cultural composition of cities is necessarily diverse. It is in urban spaces that economic and cultural development, education, and work flourish. Urban spaces also make it possible for social movements and committed political action to de-construct social and gender stereotypes, and challenge those traditions that often hinder the implementation of women’s rights. The progress and success of city policies will largely depend on the capacity to create and keep a shared sense of commitment that ensures equal conditions and opportunities for men and women alike, as well as for the diverse groups that still lack recognition, such as transgender people and sexual minorities.

Due to  different territorial factors such as localisation, mobility, and accessibility, cities are not experienced nor lived in in the same way by men, women, children, and young people. Men and women do not or are not able to use and enjoy public goods in the same way, or to the same extent. Unequal gender relations also manifest themselves in the different scales of the territory: housing, neighbourhood, city. Women’s bodies are usually the first territory in dispute, with bodily integrity and reproductive rights often endangered by violence (including intimate partner violence) and lack of adequate health services.

Gendered urban inequality: The situation in Latin America

In contemporary urban theory, cities are understood as social and historical constructs that are perceived in different ways by different individuals. The forms of accessibility and the conditions and quality of life that cities offer to people are different according to their gender, or other socially constructed identity categories.

The question of how people use and enjoy urban goods is linked to citizen rights, such as rights to services, infrastructure, transport, security, and recreation, among others. Therefore, the question of equal access and usage is not only about spaces as physical places, but also as symbolic and political sites of dispute about how individuals or groups of people inhabit the cities they live in, and who uses urban spaces.

Latin America, the region with the world’s highest level of urbanisation (UN, 2012), is also the region with the highest level of inequality in cities. This is still the status quo today, despite the fact that a lot of progress has been made over the past few decades, with social economic indicators such as education levels steadily improving.

Urban inequality becomes clear when looking at the territorial fragmentation in Latin American cities. Privileged areas with a high quality of life coexist with run-down areas without access to almost any kind of urban goods. These cities not only witness economic and social differences, but also equality gaps in terms of gender, sexual diversity, and age, as well as weak and discriminatory governance modalities. The brunt of these shortcomings is borne by women.

In the current Latin American and Caribbean context, poor women are concentrated in the deregulated sector of the labour market, earning significantly lower wages than men. Notably, women make up the majority of all levels of education, and yet inequalities in the labour market still persist. Despite having more years of education than men, the majority of women continue to work in the worst paid occupations. Comparisons between men and women of the same age and educational level give an account of significant gender pay gaps, as men earn 17 per cent more than women (IADB, 2012). The percentage of women who do not have their own income in Latin American cities is also significant, reaching 30.4% in 2012, as compared to only 12.3% of men in the same situation (ECLAC, 2012).

The persistence of the sexual division of labour is another issue to consider. Women devote at least 22 more hours than men per week to total amount of work (paid work plus unpaid work) regardless of the fact that men spend more hours in paid work (ECLAC, 2013). Often, in addition to sustaining the double day work, women are also mainly responsible for the daily environmental management in their communities and take care of water management for food and hygiene, child care, domestic animals, and vegetable gardens, among others. The traditional model of the male breadwinner for the family and female responsibility for reproductive chores is still in place.

While there have been important gains for women in terms of political participation, particularly at the legislative level as a result of new quota laws, the progress is still largely uneven. Although Latin America and the Caribbean rank among the leading regions in terms of the number of female members of parliament, the regional percentage is only 22%. The number of women in executive positions at the local level is also very low (ECLAC, 2010), with only 2173 municipal governments out of a total of 18,665 governed by female mayors. At the executive level, quota laws for equal representation have not been able to make the necessary changes for gender equality (ECLAC, 2012).

These numbers show that despite the progress made, cities and their economic, political and cultural public spheres do not favour women. The situation is arguably worse when race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation come into play too. Thus, many women experience a double exclusion: as women on the one hand, and as members of other socially vulnerable groups on the other hand. This exclusion makes them invisible when it comes to the planning of cities and urban agglomerations.

Women’s Right to the City

The failure to include women in the policy planning for urban development is a form of rendering their specific needs and demands invisible. Despite all this, women are and always have been organising themselves, expressing their demands and advancing their rights around the world. A number of feminist movements and women’s rights organisations have been advocating the institutionalisation of women’s right to the city for some time now.

This right encompasses women’s quality of life, as well as the safe use and enjoyment of urban spaces and common assets when moving about the city. It also includes the demand that women participate on an equal footing in the designing, planning, and building processes of urban habitat, as well as the development of urban infrastructure and services. Demands are not only made in relation to economic well-being, but also to political participation, making decisions over one’s own body, and equal access to work, land, housing, infrastructure, transport and security (Falú, 2009).

Women’s participation ensures a comprehensive vision of urban planning and promotes a fairer and more equal access to urban goods. The regions, states, and local governments have a key role to play in the promotion of social inclusion, and gender sensitive territorial planning can contribute to making advancements in this process. When planning a city from a gender equality perspective, it is necessary to identify and consider all physical, cultural, and social barriers that hinder the full implementation of women’s rights, in particular of poorest women and of those who are solely responsible for the care of children and the elderly.

Furthermore, it is necessary to develop proposals that facilitate men and women’s equal access to, ownership of, and decision making power over territories, cities and regions. In an ideal scenario, the incorporation of women’s right to the city also helps to make visible and take into consideration the specific situations of other neglected social groups in urban communities, such as transgender people and sexual minorities.

Incorporating women’s right to the city in the Habitat III process

It was not until recently that the relations between women and cities have been considered and challenged in policy making on a national, regional, and international level. Awareness of women’s inequality in urban contexts has led to reconsideration of territorial organisation and planning. More than 30 years after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has been approved, the current challenge is to systematically and soundly mainstream a gender perspective in regulations, agreements and policies in order to enable the coordination of both women’s rights and urban agendas. Although women’s right to the city is still some way from being implemented, it can be argued that the term contains the whole range of human rights that aim at the full realisation of women’s autonomy.

Women’s right to the city also encompasses the guidelines set for urban territories by the various Habitat Conferences. The New Urban Agenda as a political instrument in the Habitat III process should necessarily and more forcefully include women’s specific perspectives and needs and, above all, their right to the city. The implementation of the New Urban Agenda will only be successful if we delve into the understanding of problems and the solutions proposed from a perspective of gender equality.

It will only be through active policies which recognise women’s right to the city that we will be able to live in and enjoy more democratic and inclusive cities. I strongly believe that this progress is not an option, but an obligation for the various levels of state governments.

Ana Falú