Where are urban poor on the development agenda?

Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 08:58

We are just a few days away from the opening of the 6th World Urban Forum in Naples, where an ActionAid delegation, together with UN Women, will host an event aimed at bringing attention to the rights of urban women to a violence-free life.

Our event will focus on seeking recognition from governments – mainly local governments – that urban violence is a problem, especially for women and girls, and how local governments and administrative authorities are accountable for putting in place solutions. We also hope to get a commitment to lead by example, and therefore influence the practice of other local governments.

The theme of the forum is “The Urban Future” – particularly interesting because it poses the question “what is the development future?”

According to UN Habitat’s State of the World Cities 2010/2011 report, by 2030 all developing regions, including Asia and Africa, will have more people living in urban than rural areas.

Given this reality, the “development future” must include a focus on urban poor. In fact, given that the world's urban population currently exceeds the world's rural population, we are clearly behind the times.

We are running to catch a train that left the station some time ago.

I am quite startled by the lack of attention development actors are paying to urban poverty and urban communities and cities.

Why is it that the face of poverty is typically a rural one? Why are we not giving the deserved attention to urban poverty, especially the links between urban and rural communities?

Cities are often very insecure spaces for women. This is especially the case for poor women. Lack of infrastructure, adequate policing, lighting and the need to dwell in the most marginalised parts of towns, exposes the poorest inhabitants and particularly women, to the highest levels of insecurity.

Our work with urban and peri-urban communities in Monrovia shows that there is a huge risk of violence and sexual exploitation facing young university women in Liberia.

Likewise for the women and young girls living in and around the Bamburi dumpsite in Mombasa, Kenya. Many women rely on this dumpsite for their livelihoods, making them vulnerable to exploitation by the increasing number of gangs present in the area.

For the women vendors we work with in Ethiopia who sell their goods in markets in Addis Ababa, fear of theft, early in the mornings and late at nights, is foremost.

But cities also have a lot to offer. They open up opportunities for education and livelihoods, and provide new ways of organising for women seeking change.

The examples from Kenya, Ethiopia and Liberia show how urbanisation and urban spaces can be part of the “solution”, offering opportunities for poverty alleviation through education and livelihoods. But this will only be possible if cities and urban areas are actually made safe places for women and girls.

Let’s see how much the World Urban Forum challenges the mainstream understandings of poverty that focuses solely on rural communities.

I hope that it draws increased global attention to the rights and interests of the urban poor, particularly within the development sector, and that it delivers a women-centred approach to urban development and planning, supporting women’s economic empowerment, safety and security.