Slums as Spaces to Advance Gender Equality

What evidence is there to suggest that slums in the Global South are spaces which hinder progress towards the advances in gender equality nominally associated with development?


Urban areas, home to more than half of the world’s population (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 1), are becoming increasingly recognised as places of opportunity by the world’s rural poor (Amnesty International 2010, p. 8), and as engines of growth central to the development of nations’ social and economic spheres (Chant 2015, slide 11; Moser 2015, Chapter 1). But people’s desire to take advantage of the work opportunities and services associated with urban areas (Tacoli 2014, p. 1) have combined with a range of structural and more localised, intermediary forces (Moser 2015, Chapter 1) to create vast slums alongside urbanisation in the Global South (Chant 2015, slide 11). Because the majority of future population growth in developing countries will occur in cities, and because slums are becoming increasingly ‘feminised’ as female migration to slums increases and women continue to outlive men (Chant and Mcllwaine 2016, p. 1), an ever greater number of women are facing issues inherent to slums, such as overcrowding, non-durable housing, insecurity of tenure, a lack of sanitation and access to water (UN-HABITAT, 2012). These combine to present many challenges that are either specific to women or exacerbated by their gender (Tacoli & Sutherwaite 2013, p. 3). This essay agrees with, and outlines, the significant evidence in the literature on gender and slums that paints slums as spaces that hinder progress towards advances in gender equality nominally associated with development, such as the ability of women to enjoy their rights, the reduction of women’s unpaid care work and women’s ability to engage meaningfully in their communities politically and socially (UN Women 2014, p. 7). However, considering the assertion that gender has not yet been effectively ‘mainstreamed’ in urban development and planning policy (Kholsa 2009, p. 5; Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 231), this essay seeks to highlight the possible opportunities presented by slums in their current, overwhelmingly non-mainstreamed state, and in a future, more mainstreamed state. It focuses on the overlap between the challenges faced by women in slums and those faced by women in rural contexts (Chant 2013, p. 17) to argue that, despite slums’ significant challenges, they can provide a unique platform for agency and empowerment unavailable to poor, rural women, particularly in relation to grassroots organisations and movements (Tacoli 2014, p. 4). In doing so, this essay strives to be wary of the multiplicity of women’s lived experience, noting the disparate realities within urban areas, as well as regional variations, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where possible benefits present in Latin American slums may not exist or may be harder to exploit.

Slums as spaces which hinder advances in gender equality

Slums as spaces that hinder progress towards advances in gender equality is demonstrated by the disparity between increases in urban prosperity and women’s share of this prosperity (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, pp. 29-30). Mapping the complex web of factors contributing to the reality of slums’ gender inequality is however, not a simple task. Numerous attempts have been made to isolate the key factors while explaining their interconnectivity. Moser, for example, divides the challenges into the “structural” and the “intermediary” (2015, Chapter 1). Here, “structural” challenges largely revolve around infrastructure issues such as a lack of access to clean or affordable water, sanitation and education, non-durable housing structures, limited access to safe and affordable urban transport networks, limited or unenforced property and inheritance rights, and the pervasive issue of security and gendered and sexual violence, which impacts many aspects of women’s daily slum life (2015, Chapter 1). “Intermediary” challenges deal with cultural norms that to a lesser or greater extent, dependent on their context, help limit female mobility and drive gendered divisions of labour in both the productive and reproductive realms (2015, Chapter 1). While Moser acknowledges a relationship between “structural” and “intermediary” factors, how this translates to the diversity of lived experience in slums is hard to grasp. Chant and Mcllwaine’s gender-urban-slum interface (2016, p. 53) is more successful in visualising the interrelation of factors that help to subordinate urban women and hinder advances in gender equality. Its later publication places it at the cutting edge of attempts to ‘mainstream’ gender into urban development, and also provides a clear framework in which contributions by other scholars may be incorporated.

The first component of the gender-urban-slum interface relates to fertility and reproductive rights in urban areas (Chant and Mcllwaine 2016, p. 54). This revolves around Tim Dyson’s argument that the feminisation of urban areas can be traced to lower urban fertility rates than in rural areas, which Chant and McIlwaine believe to be true, and is supported by studies such as World Bank’s ‘World Development Report 2012’ (World Bank, 2011). However, with some notable exceptions, such as South Africa, there is a clear trend of markedly higher fertility rates in slums, than in the wealthier parts of urban areas (Chant and Mcllwaine 2016, p. 57).

High fertility rates occur due to a number of factors. Often there is restricted access to safe contraception in slums compared to the better-serviced areas of cities; this in turn is exacerbated by cultural norms and customs, which are more entrenched in slums than wealthier urban areas (World Bank, 2011). For example, women may be discouraged from using contraceptives by relatives, who associate them with shameful behaviour, or by partners who may measure their masculinity by abstaining from contraceptive use (Touray, 2006). Indeed, the impact of limited access to contraceptives and entrenched cultural norms in slums compared to wealthier urban areas is suggested by comparing the school dropout rates of female slum dwellers due to pregnancy, to the drop out rates due to pregnancy in non-slum areas in two nations from Sub-Saharan Africa and two from Latin America (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 57). All four nations evidence similar dropout rates in the non-slum areas of their cities: Colombia 16%; Peru 17%; Mozambique 14%; and Nigeria 16%, but have dramatically different dropout rates in their respective slum areas. Colombia and Peru have only 20% and 22% respectively, while Mozambique has 39% and Nigeria 27%. When this large Sub-Saharan African jump is compared to the generally smaller jump in slum drop out rates due to pregnancy in Latin America, it highlights the impact of the combination of poor services and dominant cultural norms, but also highlights the diversity of slums’ context on the extent to which advances in equality are hindered.

Due to the expectation that women of all social strata will provide unpaid care to new children, earlier and more frequent pregnancies inhibit female education and limit mobility (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 58). This ensures greater time constraints, reproductive labour on top of, or instead of, any remunerative work they may have participated in, a lesser ability to leave situations of domestic violence, and a lesser ability to involve themselves in their community socially or politically (Tacoli 2014, p. 2). Slums’ high fertility rates compared to wealthier urban areas, therefore paint slums as spaces that hinder women’s emancipation and advances in gender equality.

The second, linked component of the gender-urban-slum-interface relates to gendered divisions of labour in the urban economy (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 59). These divisions ensure that women are expected to participate in unpaid work, such as the daily collection of water and fuel, to engage in unpaid carework of young and/or elderly members of the family and community, while improving the living arrangements in the immediate home and neighbourhood (Tacoli 2014, p. 2). This work is unrecognised, providing no income, and denuding women the opportunity to participate in remunerative work due to time poverty. This ‘reproduction tax’ (Palmer, 1992) has a particularly severe impact on women in slums because wealthier women can hire poorer women to alleviate their own reproductive tax. This enables wealthier women to engage in remunerative work and education, thereby elevating their prospects of benefiting from urban prosperity.

It is important to note also, that gendered divisions of labour limit work available to women from all strata of society, but the effect is particularly pronounced in slums. Limited education and access to the formal economy ensures that when slum women do have time, their work is often informal, home-based and tends to reap poorer profits than that of men (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 62). Home-based businesses, women’s main economic opportunity, suffer from limited and unhealthy workspaces, the inability to stock goods securely, and limited transport links (Kholsa 2009, p. 15). Work outside the home, however, is often coupled with sexual violence (Amnesty International 2010, p. 15) and poor pay. Odd jobs available to women in the slums of Agra for example, such as fixing brushes, earn women workers the tiny sum of Rs.3-Rs.6 (0.04 USD-0.09 USD) per 100 pieces (Kholsa 2009, p. 13). Additionally, women’s work is often thought to be of lesser quality, unless it involves dexterous fingers. Both of these combine to ensure slum women languish at the bottom of the workforce (Chant 2013, p. 14; Tacoli 2014, p. 4).

Intimately linked to the gendered divisions of labour are the gender disparities in human capital. Human capital is acquired through education and is a key pathway to engaging fruitfully in recognised, productive labour. Naturally, human capital is particularly difficult for women in slums to accumulate. A lack of governmental will and/or ability to provide adequate education, combined with the previously outlined high fertility rates and time poverty endemic to slums, combine to ensure the exclusion of slum women from the ‘urban advantage’ (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 63). This is especially true when compared to their wealthier urban counterparts, who have generally lower fertility rates, fewer time constraints, greater educational opportunities and the financial capability to send both boys and girls to school. Slums then, can be seen as spaces that inhibit women’s ability to acquire human capital, a concept key to building their capacities and self-esteem, exerting their agency and enabling advances in gender equality.

These three components of the gender-urban-slum interface tie into the limited ability of women to acquire physical, natural and financial assets in the urban context generally. Chant and McIlwaine, along with Moser (2015, Chapter 1), stress the importance of the marked difference in women’s ability to acquire private assets such as land and property, as well as safe access to public assets such as urban services and infrastructure (2016, pp. 63-64). Indeed, a study by Faranak Miraftab found that in sixteen low-income or slum areas in urban communities focused in Africa and South Asia, approximately only 30% of owner-occupiers were women (2001, p. 145). This reflects a gendered tendency in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia to be particularly unequal in regard to land and property ownership, where equal inheritance rights under law are either non-existent or particularly wanting (Chant 2013, p. 17). This limited access to assets by law, is compounded in slums, where the location of land and housing that is available to women is mostly on the peripheries of cities. Removed from, and plagued by unsafe access to adequate urban transport and infrastructure such as water, sanitation and formal economic opportunity, women in slums have a severely limited ability to acquire financial assets when compared to men and wealthier women (Rakodi 2014, pp. 10-11). Importantly, this further subjects women to abuse in the domestic sphere, as women are reliant on their partner’s or father’s ownership of property and shelter (Amnesty International 2010, pp. 12-13; Kholsa 2009 p. 16). Even where male ownership in the slum context is not always recognised by law, due slums’ illegality, strong cultural norms and men’s physical advantage often converge to absent slum women’s claims to property.

The limited ability to acquire human capital is further challenged by the gendered divisions in space, mobility and connectivity that constitute the fifth component of the gender-urban-slum interface. It is accepted that urban spaces are designed by men, for men (Chant and McIlwaine 2016 p. 3; Fenster 2005, p. 220; Kholsa 2009, p. 7) and this has significant repercussions for the security and bodily integrity of women in urban spaces, as well as propagating gender differences and inequality. This often falls along the lines of ‘forbidden’ and ‘permitted’ private and public spaces, which conspire to constrain a woman’s ‘place’ to the domestic and reproductive, away from the productive, political and social opportunities afforded by public spaces such as transport, education and the formal and informal economies (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 66). The Lerebvrian concept of the ‘right to the city’ (Fenster 2005, p. 229) is therefore violated by these divisions, and is naturally exacerbated in the slums of urban areas, where the population tends to be less educated, more adherent to patriarchal norms and racked by gendered violence, ensuring the “where, when and how” (Levy 2013, pp. 26-27 in Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 66) of women’s travel is heavily controlled.

Women’s access to spaces, mobility and connectivity is also particularly hampered in urban areas by physical planning and design (or lack thereof), which create environments conducive to opportunistic violence and crime (Kholsa 2009, p. 8). The poor lighting, isolation, and inadequate transport and police services particularly endemic to slums, often make women’s travel dangerous (Kholsa 2009, p. 16). Even when women have an opportunity, or need, to travel to remunerative sites of work, sanitary facilities, or water points, this pervasive danger threatens their journeys and serves to reinforce patriarchal concepts of the ‘forbidden’ and the ‘permitted’.

The last component of the gender-urban-slum interface pertains to gender disparities in power and rights (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 68). Stemming from the interaction of the previously outlined components, urban women are impeded from achieving meaningful participation in both formal, governmental roles, and in more localised, informal grassroots movements, as well as in the private sphere (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 68). Underrepresentation in the political arena silences their voices and the projection of women’s issues and input. This helps maintain the dominant structures of oppression that reinforce gender roles and the disparities outlined in the previous five components of the urban-gender-slum interface. Where women are engaged in formal governance in the Global South, inclusion is often nominal. In India, for example, the 1992 74th Constitutional Amendment Act reserved seats in local governmental bodies for a range of minorities, including women (Kholsa 2009, p. 9). In practice however, many of the seats operate as ‘parshad patis’ or proxy seats, for male members of the family (Kholsa 2009, pp. 9-10). This particularly disadvantages slum women’s political participation due to their exposure to the combined factors of the gender-urban-slum interface. Furthermore, grassroots movements, which are the most likely site of slum women’s involvement, tend to revolve around acquiring basic services such as improved sanitation and water infrastructure. Such improvements are associated with women’s work, helping to reinforce their improvement as yet another women’s responsibility, while pushing women from other areas of governance. This engenders a culture of women working in development, rather than development working for women (Chant 2007, p. 12).

The Urban-Rural Overlap

The gender-urban-slum interface helps make clear the significant evidence that slums are spaces hindering progress towards the advances in gender equality, which are nominally associated with development. There is issue however, when considering slums as spaces of inequality through the urban-gender-slum interface, in its limited focus on the overlap between inequalities shared by the urban and the rural. Apart from passing references to the urban-rural overlap and that “women’s general disenfranchisement in rural contexts ‘… reaches deep into urban areas.’” (Chant 2013, p. 17), there is a little focus on rural areas’ underdeveloped health and transport infrastructure, violence and its role as the origin of many cultural norms that limit female mobility, define a woman’s role, and help drive gendered divisions of labour in the productive and reproductive realms (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 56).

This does not mitigate the gendered challenges facing women in slums, some of which, such as non-family gendered and sexual violence, are exacerbated in slums (Tacoli 2014, p. 4), but it does suggest that slums are not entirely responsible for all gendered inequalities. It suggests such inequalities, in part, stem from a wider lack of opportunities available to poor women in the Global South in general, and especially in the rural context. Indeed, even Chant and McIlwaine state that throughout Africa, for example, it is rural pressures that are prompting women’s migration to urban areas (2016, p. 20). Such pressures include poor pathways to economic recourse and the impact of early male deaths or desertion, leaving women with heavier burdens. Male desertion is not specific to the rural context, but the informal economy in slums is more accessible to women and provides greater opportunity for remunerative work, even if it is a day-to-day existence (Tacoli 2014, p. 4). Furthermore, in the specific case of rural Tanzania, women are being forced to leave their homes by land/property-grabbing relatives (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 20). They are also migrating to avoid particularly severe HIV stigma in rural areas and to acquire the HIV medication more readily available in urban areas (Chant and McIlwaine 2016, p. 20). This can be extrapolated to a wider African, Middle Eastern and South Asian context, where property rights are either non-existent or particularly wanting (Chant 2013, p. 17), and contraceptive stigma is more entrenched, especially compared to the more feminised and socially open Latin American context.

The focus on gendered and sexual violence in slums also overlooks the fact that violence exists in rural areas as well. Rural areas, with their deeply entrenched traditional patriarchal practices and expectations, ensure that women are subject to higher incidences of domestic violence abuse (McIlwaine 2013, pp. 67-68). This is coupled with particularly poor rural infrastructure and a dearth of reliable police services to report such incidences, cyclically reinforcing its occurrence (McIlwaine 2013, p. 66). It is true that women face higher rates of non-family violence in slums than in rural areas (Amnesty International 2010, pp. 13-15), especially where there is poor infrastructure, but as Tacoli posits, it suggests that “…the main differences seem to lie in its [violence’s] nature rather than its incidence…” (2014, p. 4)

When this rural-urban overlap is considered in conjunction with Moser’s statement that “In reality, poverty is a social relation, not an absolute condition” (Moser 2015, Chapter 1), it begs the question of whether despite the panoply of negatives specific to slums or shared with rural areas, there are characteristics inherent to slums that can in fact be harnessed to advance progress in gender equality nominally associated with development.

Slums as spaces which can advance gender equality

The depth of the gendered inequalities and associated challenges faced by women in the world’s slums is clear. It is true that compared to women in wealthier areas of a city, slum women face greater gendered inequalities due to their exposure to the challenges of the slum environment, but compared to poor rural women, slum women have a greater ability to engage in many of the advances in gender equality nominally associated with development, such as the ability of women to enjoy their rights, the reduction of women’s unpaid care work, and women’s ability to engage meaningfully in their communities politically and socially (UN Women 2014, p. 7).

Borrowing the first component of the gender-urban-slum interface, fertility and reproductive rights, it can be seen that fertility rates in slums tend to be lower than those in rural areas (Chant and McIlwaine, pp. 55-56; Tacoli 2014, p. 1). This comes from less entrenched patriarchal norms inhibiting use of sexual protection, and a greater access to health services in slums than in rural areas (Chant and McIlwaine, p. 56; Tacoli 2014, p. 1). This is critical, because it reduces the ‘reproduction tax’ of slum women compared to their poor rural counterparts. The potential alleviation of ‘reproduction tax’ and associated time poverty presented by slums does not automatically resolve the gendered inequalities faced by its female inhabitants, nor does it provide a clear path for women to challenge these inequalities. It does however, open them to engaging in key pathways to achieving advances in equality, such as remunerative work, asset accumulation (Moser, 2015 Chapter 1) and involvement in grassroots organisations. These pathways are less available for poor women in rural areas due to time poverty and patriarchal cultural norms which ensure that women’s remunerative work is accorded even less value than in the slums (Tacoli 2014, p. 4). The absence of pathways to gender equality and the limited value seen in remunerative work by rural women compared to their slum counterparts (Tacoli 2014, p. 4), would make more difficult, advances for rural women who do manage to find time to engage in these pathways.

Indeed, the ability of women in slums to channel reduced time poverty and money gained from remunerative work into assets such as housing, is demonstrated by the increasing emergence of female-headed households (FHHs) in slums in the Global South (Rakodi 2014, p. 13). Ambivalent by nature, in that FHHs hoist reproductive and productive work onto the sole woman, FHHs also provide women with greater independence to engage in pathways to gender equality (Rakodi 2014, p. 13; Tacoli 2014, p. 1). This is demonstrated by twenty-six year Moser study in the Guayaquil slum, Ecuador referenced by Rakodi, where more than half of FHHs had risen above the poverty line, compared to one-third of male-headed households (MHHs) (Rakodi 2014, p. 13). Naturally, this is more prevalent in Latin America where slums are more feminised and women face fewer restrictions on their mobility. Regardless, it does suggest that slums can provide a space for women to exert their agency compared to rural contexts.

The lower fertility rates and ‘reproduction tax’, increased economic opportunity, and the reduction in inequality between men and women’s asset accumulation in slums, all combine to reduce the disparity between men and women’s human capital – a key point in the gender-urban-slum interface. This is supported by Moser’s previously mentioned study in Guayaquil, which found that FHHs were particularly successful in providing education to the children of both sexes (Rakodi 2014, p. 13). So despite Chant and McIlwaine’s tendency to paint the slums as spaces that inhibit women’s ability to acquire human capital, slums can also be seen as spaces for poor women to build their capacities and self-esteem, exert their agency, and enable advances in gender equality.

These opportunities can combine to empower slum women to engage in grassroots organisations and movements largely unavailable to their rural counterparts. The social cohesion available to slum women and its role as a support network, is evidenced by the results of the Mumbai Slum Rehabilitation Scheme outlined by Tacoli (2014, p. 2). When slum dwellers were moved to apartments with water and sanitation facilities, they reported feelings of isolation from the support networks in their slum communities and an inability to engage in home-based enterprise – both key elements in reducing gendered inequalities. Indeed, slums, not rural areas, have been the source of grassroots organisations run by slum women such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, an organisation that seeks to upgrade slums, facilitate learning exchanges between slums, and establish community, citywide and nationwide saving groups (Tacoli 2014, p. 4).


Slums present women with a diverse range of gendered barriers that inhibit their benefit from many of the advances in gender equality nominally associated with development, especially when considered against their wealthier urban counterparts. Despite this, slum women in the Global South, and especially in Latin America, benefit from a lower ‘reproduction tax’, increased economic and educational opportunity, and less severe patriarchal norms than their poor rural counterparts. If gender mainstreaming in future development and urban planning policy can be realised, slums’ unique opportunities for women’s agency and social cohesion, as evidenced by the emergence of grassroots organisations led by slum women, can only grow. So while slums present gendered challenges, they are also spaces which can progress advances in gender equality nominally associated with development.


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