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Gender Equality and Sustainable Urbanisation

image © UN-HABITAT: gender equality and sustainable urbanization

Gender Equality for Better Cities and a Better World

Currently, the numbers of urban and rural dwellers in the world are almost evenly split, with slightly more in urban areas. However, the share of urban dwellers is expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2050.1 Almost all of this growth will take place in developing countries. Cities are often engines of economic growth and social advancement, but rapid urbanisation in most of the developing world has also resulted in stark inequalities between the rich and the poor, environmental degradation and growing numbers of slum dwellers.

While urbanisation offers many benefits, the ugly face of urbanisation is urban poverty, which often has the most severe impact on women and girls. The world’s 828 million slum dwellers2 suffer in varying degrees from poor sanitation, inadequate access to clean water, crime, unemployment, threats of evictions, overcrowding and poor quality housing.

Women in cities often suffer disproportionately, not only because they are, on average, poorer than men (three-fifths of the world’s one billion poorest people are women and girls3), but often also because they experience greater difficulty in accessing resources and services tailored to their needs, and decision-making opportunities.

This WomenWatch feature aims to improve understanding of gender equality issues in urban development, an area which has received less attention than rural development within the gender and development discourse. The emphasis here is mainly on poor, urban women, especially those in slums and informal settlements.

There is need for a balanced approach on achieving gender equality and empowering women. This approach needs to focus on both the rural and the urban poor, and the many linkages between them. Migration, the flow of money and resources, and environmental interdependency between rural and urban areas makes sustainable urbanisation a global issue affecting both the countryside and the city.

Related Global United Nations Commitments, Resolutions and Intergovernmental Outcomes

a) The Habitat Agenda

Adopted in 1996 in Istanbul by 171 countries at the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, the Habitat Agenda is a worldwide plan of action for sustainable human settlements. One of its seven commitments is to gender equality.

The Habitat Agenda recognises the human rights of women, including those pertaining to land, housing and property. It promotes greater participation of women in public and political life, and encourages capacity building for women. There are also calls to take into account the special needs of women and to value women's knowledge and contribution in planning and managing towns and cities.

In particular, it is worth noting paragraph 46 of the Habitat Agenda, which states the commitment of UN member states to “integrate gender perspectives in legislation, policies and projects through the application of gender-sensitive analysis.”

The paragraph also highlights the importance of incorporating gender in human settlements planning and monitoring and evaluation, including “collecting, analysing and disseminating sex-disaggregated data and information on human settlements issues.”

»» Click here for an extract from Gender and the Habitat Agenda

b) The Beijing Platform for Action

The Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, refers to urbanisation in the context of linkages between the urban and the rural. While it advocates for special attention to the plight of rural women—due to their social marginalisation and low levels of economic development, especially in developing countries5 —it also recognises the rise of rural-to-urban migration and its “unequal consequences for women and men.” 6

The Platform draws attention to the “feminisation of poverty,” one manifestation of which is the rise of female-led households, which are “very often among the poorest.” 7 It describes rural to urban migration as a contributing factor to the rise of these households.

The Platform states that because of gender-based barriers such as wage discrimination and “occupational segregation patterns in the labour market,” 8 female-led households often fare worse than male-led households.

The Platform also suggests that “large movements of refugees or displaced persons in developing countries contribute to rapid urbanisation”. During these times, it notes, family structures are affected and women are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation. 9

c) The Millennium Development Goals

The eight Millennium Development Goals were agreed by the world community in 2000 to tackle the world’s main development challenges. Each goal has elements that can be enhanced through attention to gender and urbanisation.

The first goal on halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, for example, would be more effectively addressed when special attention is given to the plight of impoverished women in slums and helping them to overcome the extra barriers they face, as women, in securing gainful employment.

The third goal is, explicitly, to promote gender equality and empower women. The seventh goal—to ensure environmental sustainability—also has linkages to gender equality and sustainable urbanisation. UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities 2006/7 report revealed that in many cases, “poverty, poor sanitation and indoor air pollution make children and women living in slums more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses and other infectious diseases than their rural counterparts.” 10

Target 7.d of the seventh goal is to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. From a gender perspective, part of monitoring this target includes compilation of sex-disaggregated data and a gender-based analysis of how slum life, urban poverty and gender issues are interrelated.

Other Global UN Commitments and Intergovernmental Outcomes Linking Gender Equality and Urban Development


UN Publications

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA):

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP):

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO):

United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM):

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT):

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA):

World Bank:

World Health Organization (WHO):

Other Resources on UN Websites

UN (system-wide):

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations:

International Labour Organization (ILO):

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP):

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO):

United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM):

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for the Advancement of Women (UN DESA/DAW):

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):

United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP):

United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW):

United Nations Millennium Project

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR):

United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR):

World Bank:

See also on WomenWatch, a UN inter-agency portal:

UN Events

1UN-HABITAT (2009) Global Report on Human Settlements 2009: Planning Sustainable Cities, p. xxii.  UN-HABITAT’s Global Urban Observatory estimates that in 2010 urban dwellers will make up 50.6 per cent of the world population.
2UN-HABITAT (2009) Global Urban Observatory.
3UNDP (2006) Taking Gender Equality Seriously.
4UN-HABITAT (1996) Habitat Agenda, par. 15.
5Beijing Platform for Action, paragraph 20.
6Beijing Platform for Action, paragraph 36.
7Beijing Platform for Action, paragraph 22.
8Beijing Platform for Action, paragraph 22.
9Beijing Platform for Action, paragraph 36.
10UN-HABITAT (2006) State of the World's Cities 2006/7: The Millennium Development Goals and Urban Sustainability: 30 Years of Shaping the Habitat Agenda, p. v.

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