New Report Highlights the Gender Dimensions of Urbanisation: Violence Against Women Rampant in Urban Slums Across the World
Thursday, May 15, 2008 3:23 PM

Urbanisation is not a gender neutral phenomenon. The gender dimension of urbanisation involves and affects hundreds of millions of women in very particular ways, which must be urgently addressed in the battle against global poverty. These are some of the key findings of Women, Slums and Urbanisation: Examining the Causes and Consequences, a new report by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). The report also found that violence against women is rampant in urban slums across the world. The report is based on COHRE’s research in six global cities (Accra, Buenos Aires, Colombo, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Sao Paulo) where COHRE interviewed women and girls living in over twenty slum communities.

The report confirms that, for women as well as for men, the city’s primary attraction or ‘pull’ factor is the possibility of economic opportunities unavailable to them in other areas. COHRE's research also revealed significant ‘push’ factors, many of which are gender-specific. Many women migrate to cities as a way to escape from something which threatens to do them harm. These ‘push’ factors include domestic violence and harmful cultural practices, such as polygamy, and disinheritance. The research cites cases of widows in Ghana who had been disinherited of their land and property in the north, or those whose inheritance had caused a rift between them and their in-laws, who decided to move to Accra to start a new life.

Mayra Gomez, Coordinator of COHRE’s Women’s Housing Rights Programme (WHRP), said, “COHRE’s research reveals that the triggers for women’s migration to the cities are often related to patterns of gender-based discrimination and violence which serve to push women deeper into poverty, or which otherwise land women in crisis situations. For example, women whose economic situation suddenly worsens as a result of disinheritance, divorce, or domestic violence cannot be said to be moving to urban centres out of a ‘gender neutral’ desire to work.”

According to Women, Slums and Urbanisation, women often move into slums for a number of reasons which both propel them from the rural areas, and attract them to the city. For example, women who find themselves infected by HIV are sometimes convinced that relocation into the city would solve the glaring social stigma they suffer in their home communities and would also be beneficial in terms of being able to access health treatment and other services, which they would otherwise not get in their previous communities.

Gomez said, “Other factors impacting urbanisation include HIV/AIDS, disaster and forced eviction, all of which have gender-specific dimensions. The impact of HIV/AIDS is plainly evident in Kenya, where HIV and AIDS emerged as key factors relating to the migration of poor women to the slums of Nairobi. In Kenya, many women whose husbands have died of AIDS-related diseases were presumed by their communities to also be infected. Many such women are driven away from their communities on accusation that they will infect more people and spread the disease to the entire community.”

Once in the slums, women also face formidable challenges to daily survival. Jean du Plessis, COHRE’s Deputy Director, said, “Our research demonstrates that while women’s experiences are not uniform, there are similarities in the reasons why they migrate to cities, and women face similar challenges to their daily survival in slums across the world. While inadequate living conditions in the slums affect all residents, female or male, women and girls suffer disproportionately those burdens which fall on their shoulders because of their gender. Violence, inadequate provision of services, housing insecurity, lack of privacy, employment discrimination, and unequal remuneration are all common experiences with profound gendered dimensions.”

The most critical cross-cutting theme to emerge from the COHRE study is that violence against women, including domestic violence and rape, is rampant in urban slums across the world. Gomez said, “Violence against women and women’s insecurity in slums emerged as principal and recurrent issues. Governments have a duty to address fundamental violations of human rights – in this case, of women’s human rights – which, at times underlie migration in the first place and which similarly prohibit women from realising the full range of their human rights within the urban context.”

COHRE’s report identifies ten concrete recommendations, which, if implemented, would go far in addressing the problems experienced by women living in urban slums across the world. The recommendations are:

  • Provide security of tenure, as a matter of priority, to women and their families living in slums;
  • Combat violence against women in all its forms, and provide effective legal and other remedies to victims of gender-based violence;
  • Invest in slum upgrading programmes and housing development programmes for the poor, ensuring women’s effective participation;
  • Ensure joint ownership of and control over housing, land, and property, as well as equal rights between men and women in marriage;
  • Strengthen national legal protections for women’s housing rights on the basis of non-discrimination and equality;
  • Enforce women’s inheritance rights and equal rights to marital property;
  • Improve access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, and provide safer environments for women living in the slums;
  • Fight against women’s poverty and provide economic empowerment opportunities to poor and disadvantaged women;
  • Improve the collection of data on the impacts of urbanisation, with particular emphasis on collecting gender-disaggregated statistic; and
  • Raise awareness about women’s human rights, including women’s housing rights, at community and institutional levels.

For interviews or additional information, contact:

Mayra Gomez, Coordinator of COHRE’s Women’s Housing Rights Programme, at or +1 218 733 1370.