Do young urban women have a choice?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - 10:27

Today we’re releasing some new research on young women living in poor urban areas in 3 countries – India, Ghana and South Africa.

The research was conducted in 7 cities, involving 450 young women and men between the ages of 15-25. 

Why 15-25 you may be thinking? This age is an important time in any woman’s life. It’s when she’s faced with exciting and difficult choices about whether to continue her education, get into a relationship, become sexually active and have children.

Despite the many opportunities that cities provide, our research shows us that living in poverty can dramatically decrease the choices a young woman can make.

We’ve learned a lot from this research. Some of the findings are not surprising, for instance; Africa and Asia are increasingly urban, increasingly young and at least half of these young urban people are women!

But some of our findings are more surprising.

  • In sub-Saharan Africa 62% of the urban population lives in slums, or 199 million people; while in South Asia 35% of the population live in slums representing 190 million people.
  • In South Africa, the research notes extremely high unemployment levels, with a conservative estimate of unemployment for young people aged 15-24 years being 47%.
  • In India women spend 34.6 hours a week on household work and childcare as compared to men who spend only 3.2 hours.
  • In Ghana, the use of modern contraceptive methods are low at 17% amongst all women, and 78% of young women (aged 15-19 years) say they have experienced problems accessing public reproductive health services.

We conducted 42 focus group discussions across these three countries, where young women and men were able to talk about their experiences.

Women talked about not being able to continue their education once they got married or started having children because their male partners and families did not approve. Yet in all three countries young women and men talked about how important an education is to get a better paid job. 

In none of the communities we visited was it acceptable for young women or men to ask questions about their sexual and reproductive health rights.

Most young people accessed information about sex, contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases through the media or their friends. Even when knowledge and access to contraceptives is high, such as in South Africa, contraceptive use remains low.

Abortion in Ghana is the second most common cause of maternal death, yet it is not discussed.  As one young woman in Ghana explained “it is common but secret”.  

Without access to an education and decent work opportunities, young women are finding alternative ways of making money. Across all three countries when women are employed, they are in unstable, informal employment with jobs including working as casual labourers in factories making incense sticks and safety pins in India.

Some young women were trained in hairdressing and dressmaking in Ghana but now can’t find a job so they are working as petty traders and hawkers in the local markets, or offering laundry services.

In Ghana and South Africa young women reported that a common income source is from transactional sex with men. These are not the kind of ‘choices’ young women should be faced with.  

Low paying and insecure jobs mean young women can’t escape the poverty trap. Without control over their bodies and access to sexual and reproductive health services young women cannot decide for themselves when and with whom they have sex, and whether or not they will have children and the number and spacing of any children they have.

Without support at home, childcare responsibilities increase and women can no longer access education or in certain cases employment. It is a vicious cycle of inequality and injustice.

Now that we have a better sense of the rights violations young women are facing, ActionAid staff and partners in consultation with the young women themselves designed a programme.

Central to the programme is creating a safe and empowering space for young women to meet and talk about the choices they’re facing. We’re then going to work with young women to start demanding and accessing their rights to decent work and sexual and reproductive health rights.

Over the next three years we will reach out to 5,800 women across these 3 countries to support young women to make their own, real choices!