Women, Cities, and the Sustainable Development Goals

One of the most profound and impactful insights behind the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals has been the understanding that every one of these Goals — ending poverty and hunger, ensuring access to health care, quality education, clean water, sanitation, energy, etc. — overlaps with nearly every other.

This should be obvious: hunger and food insecurity, both now on the rise for the third consecutive year, both inextricably linked to poverty, are also intimately connected to poor and fragile health, and to the lack of access to affordable shelter, transport, schooling, energy, markets, and higher education.

Gender equality, for instance, Sustainable Development Goal #5 (SDG5), has long been understood to be relevant to every other sector. But so are transport, environmental sustainability, and most of the global Goals, as the experts convened to develop the metrics for measuring progress toward all the Goals have made clear.

Still, there are pairs and clusters of SDGs generally not mentioned in the same breath that are nevertheless closely related. SDG5 and SDG11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, are one example. With the world’s urban population expected to reach five billion by 2030, compounding cities’ already severe infrastructure, congestion, pollution, and energy challenges, it will be tough simply to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable,” much less to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” as the full imperatives of SDGs #11 and #5 dictate.

Women selling and shopping in Bamako, Mali’s capital city

But let’s face it: without “safe, resilient, and sustainable” cities, the world cannot “achieve gender equality” or “empower all women and girls.” As the UN wraps up its 74th General Assembly meetings, it is worth zeroing in on the intersection of these two Goals for a moment and shining a light on the many ways in which we need to view and understand progress in either domain through the lens of the other.

In fact, everything about today’s urban life directly implicates women and girls, often burdening them disproportionately. Although women’s wage work and unpaid care work together have built much of today’s urban fabric and have enabled the creation of urban prosperity, that very prosperity rarely benefits women. UN-HABITAT’s seminal State of Women in Cities 2012/2013 Report termed this disparity the gap between “gendered inputs” to the city, and “gendered outcomes” — a gap that is neither fair, wise, or socially sustainable.

But the chronic dearth of safe, affordable, and convenient shelter, water, sanitation, transport, energy, and connectivity; safe and accessible streets, neighborhoods, and green space; and educational, entrepreneurial, and job opportunities serves only to perpetuate discriminatory practices, preconceptions, and this punitive undervaluation of women’s vital roles in building and sustaining the city.

The worsening food, fuel, and climate crises have only heightened these inequalities, breaching the limits of both physical and environmental sustainability as desperate residents deplete the natural resources both within and outside the city, simply to survive. And at the regional, national, and international levels, the global financial and economic crisis of the late 2000s cast a lasting pall over the prospects for large-scale business expansion, innovation, job creation, and small-scale entrepreneurship, making it all but impossible to reduce un- and underemployment, much less to remedy the deep gender imbalance in the paid workforce.

Selected data from this year’s “Special Edition” Report of the UN Secretary-General, “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals,” highlight the extent to which the glacial progress toward realizing SDG 11 and related Goals continues to cripple the ability to thrive of urban women in poverty. A few examples:

  • Living in Slums: Despite meaningful reductions between 1990–2015 in the numbers of those living in informal settlements worldwide, 2016 nevertheless saw more than one billion people living in slums. Most of these people are families for whose care and feeding women are largely responsible.
  • Accessing Public Transport: Roughly 53 percent of the urban populations in the 227 cities sampled in 2018 had access to convenient public transport. With women responsible for getting children to school, elders to the clinic, and shopping for food for their families, once again, it is women most critically affected by governments’ failure to invest in safe and accessible public transport.
  • Public Health, Public Services: Ninety percent of those living in urban areas in 2016 breathed air with dangerously high particulate matter content, according to the World Health Organization. Billions still lack access to safe water and sanitation, two billion lack access to waste collection, and last year only a fifth of those surveyed in 220 cities worldwide had ready access to open public spaces.
  • Opportunities to Learn, Work, and Lead: Two-thirds of the 750 million illiterate adults in 2016 were women. Women are still underrepresented in managerial and political leadership, and data from 90+ countries indicate that women spend roughly three times as much time each day on unpaid care and domestic work as men, further curtailing their ability to undertake paid work, education, and leisure activities and making it tougher to remedy the policies that perpetuate these gender-based inequities.

As UN member states gather their data in preparation for a high-level sustainable development forum in July, followed by five major meetings next September, the first five-year benchmark of the Sustainable Development Goal agenda, where progress will be assessed, plans recalibrated, and new commitments made, now is the right moment to ask exactly what’s to be done, to ensure gender equity in urban life?

Participants in WomenStrong International member DHAN Foundation’s EMPOWER:WOMEN program Madurai, India

For cities to actually work for women, there must be massively increased investment in infrastructure development that will reduce the time burden and the overall burden of “reproductive work” — that is, the work involved in making the city tick and in enabling others to work and to earn well. When we succeed, there might be no more need for women and girls, even in urban areas, to have to spend hours each day collecting firewood or water, or disposing of solid waste, for instance, or to have to walk to school, work, market, or home on a shoulderless, unlit road where, with each passing motorbike or stranger, their lives are at risk.

Again, we’re talking about sustainability — both environmental and social, or human — as a key metric for defining whether a city, and its residents can thrive, or even live.

Make no mistake, we’ll need extensive networks of partnerships to get there — with representation from community-based organizations, civil society organizations, national and international non-governmental organizations, multilateral agencies, local, regional, and national governments, and the private sector, all involved, all at the table, to conceptualize, design, build, and sustain cities that are truly “inclusive, safe, and resilient” for women and children and all urban residents, everywhere.

Women in cities everywhere are ready to contribute; in any case, we’ll all be watching.