Domina aged 10 does her homework on the pavement that is her home in Kolkata
Photo: Tom Pietrasik/ActionAid
Fifteen ActionAiders, including staff from 3 countries, and some of our partners gathered this week at a young urban women’s life choices and livelihoods workshop in Johannesburg.
Having embarked on an intensive period of scoping research in Ghana, India and South Africa over the last 6 months, we came together this week to develop a programme to address the challenges that young women face in Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad in India; Accra and Tamale in Ghana; and townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, relating to control over their sexual and reproductive health and opportunities for equitable and decent work.
It was perhaps surprising that in such distant places, these young women face so many similar challenges.
Oppressive norms and values shape women’s decisions around relationships, sex and reproductive health in all three countries. Exploitation of young women working in the informal sector was repeatedly named as a problem.
Governments are failing to guarantee that young women are skilled in areas that actually match market demands. As one Ghanaian participant asked, “If all women from the community are trained as dress-makers and they begin to sew their own clothes, who is actually buying their goods?”
Our discussions showed that challenging social and cultural norms is key, particularly at the community level. However, with three of the world’s most powerful southern nations represented in this work – two of them what economists call BRICS, an association of the leading emerging economies – the lack of state accountability for the rights of young women has been most frustrating.
Growing privatisation in India is resulting in increasingly inaccessible basic services. In Ghana, family planning services are not included in the national health insurance scheme. In South Africa, inequality and discrimination is rife, and it has left youth feeling betrayed by the promises made to South Africans when they became a democracy 18 years ago.
What we also realised this week is that with the higher cost of living in urban areas, global statistics may be masking the extent to which urban populations are living in poverty.
Today more than 50% of the world’s population is urban and that number is growing. More than half of these people are female, and the majority of urban populations are young people under 35 years of age.
As urbanisation increases, which it inevitably will do, it will become increasingly important for ActionAid to confront this inequality and support young women in their collective demands for greater accountability from their governments.