But there is a common hidden dimension to this urbanization: by some estimates, women – especially young women – comprise the majority of those migrating to urban centers. There is evidence that urbanization can provide opportunities for women to make progress on gender equality — in terms of access to increased legal protections, greater enrollment in tertiary education, more opportunities for formal employment, and a relaxation of gendered social norms. Despite this, women remain excluded from critical conversations and decisions on how cities are run.
Since women remain under-represented in local-governance institutions, their perspectives are often neglected in urban or municipal policy design, implementation and accountability mechanisms. Worldwide, women make up less than 5% of mayors and 20% of city councilors. Against the odds, this percentage almost doubles when it comes to women as leaders of capital cities in places as disparate as Tunis, Freetown, Baghdad, Paris, Bucharest and Washington DC.
Generally, though, the needs of women are often ignored by urban policy-makers and planners, making cities more difficult, and often dangerous, places for women to thrive. This must change and the SDGs provide relevant targets to guide us.
SDG11 focuses on making cities inclusive and safe, therefore requiring us to pay more attention to inclusive urban governance, informed by gender-aware urban planning and design to help make cities better environments for everyone. Let’s apply this to life. If you were mayor of a city receiving substantial snow, , which roads would you clear first? In most places, I would guess the main roads are priority with neighborhood roads after. What does this mean? In the most challenging snowfalls, commuters, mostly men, go to work and leave women, children, the elderly, and people with mobility or health issues, snow-bound at home. Gender-informed snow clearance (thank you, Sweden!) would prioritize neighborhoods to enable the majority or people to get on with their lives: teachers (mainly women) can get to schools, kids can go to school, services can reach the elderly and those with mobility or health issues, women who work outside the home can go to work – and so can men.
Or if you were a mayor of a city in Latin America with a declining municipal transport system, how would you reform that system to address the fact that across the region an estimated 60% of women are physically assaulted on public transport? Ask the former Vice-Mayor of Quito, Ecuador – Daniela Chacon – who led the development of the CUÉNTAME (‘Tell Me’) program which provided women who wanted to report an assault direct access to trained personnel able to provide psychological and legal support, in well-signposted booths at five of the main transfer stations in the city. Importantly, several cases were prosecuted and defendants received jail terms, breaking women’s perceptions of helplessness and the perpetrators’ sense of impunity.
In the context of migration to urban centers, another important target is embedded in SDG16: namely to “provide legal identity for all”, by 2030. The vulnerability of the undocumented person is acute. For undocumented women, it is tantamount to invisibility before the state and/or the law, and pushes them to the edges of our societies and economies – depriving them of access to a range of civil and political rights and essential services, the ability to conduct financial transactions, and making them easy targets for crime.
These examples demonstrate the need for producing more inclusive, adaptive and effective governance in cities. Today, there is great human energy in cities around the world dedicated to reshaping their governance structures and processes to become more nimble, collaborative and data-driven. We need to better understand which innovations appear to produce sustainable, transformative improvements in the quality of urban democracy that improves the lives and opportunities of all citizens. Both the innovations and energy should be harnessed to ensure that cities don’t fail their biggest ever test: making urban democracy work for women too. At NDI we intend our Women Mayors’ Network, supporting women who dare to #LeadDifferently, to be part of the answer.