Tomorrow's megacities will be more crowded, but also greener. What's in them for women as they increasingly demand a space suited to their needs? Can women take the lead in designing more sustainable cities?
More people are living in urban centres than ever before, showing a trend that is set to continue. But although many move to urban areas in search of jobs and prosperity, poverty remains rife in most megacities. The lack of energy to light homes and power businesses plays a big part in preventing people from finding jobs or becoming entrepreneurs. How do you make sure that families, school children and small entrepreneurs have access to energy without further polluting cities?
Solid fossil fuels that are already killing millions globally will need to be phased out, but such an effort still seems monumental for countries that rely on fossil energy sources to fight poverty. But things are starting to change, and not only at an economic level. As gender awareness spreads, women in the developing world are taking the lead on many aspects of their evolving societies, from equality and human rights to sustainability and public health.
One lesser-known feature of the global urbanisation trend is what researchers call the 'feminisation' of cities, or the proportionally higher number of women who move from rural areas to become city dwellers. Perhaps surprisingly, this ‘feminisation’ is observed in the developing world in particular, where most patriarchal societies still expect the men to move out and find jobs in the nearest city.
Sylvia Chant, professor of Developmental Geography at the London School of Economics in the UK, observes that better job prospects, increased emancipation and the fact that women tend to live longer than men all contribute to the feminisation of urban landscapes. But how can we turn 'feminised' cities into 'feminist' cities that cater to the specific and differential needs of women and men?
Girls not only need better education and improved economic prospects, but also real empowerment, namely the ability to make decisions for themselves and actively shape their own communities. And this is not just a matter of equality – it also makes economic sense. Unlocking the creative potential of the female half of the population can allow more innovation to flourish, as is shown in the case in East Africa, where the clean energy sector is being transformed by women, says Izael Pereira Da Silva, deputy vice chancellor of Strathmore University in Nairobi.
"Rural women are more reliable than men when it comes to managing small businesses, because they are used to spreading their money thin" says Da Silva. Through microcredit, which is increasingly available to low income communities, rural women are now able to start their own businesses, and clean energy proved to be attractive field for female entrepreneurship, Da Silva observes.
For example, as part of the newly implemented government devolution, local administrations will have more control over energy plans, which they will submit to the central government. In turn, the government will disburse funding to roll out the programs locally.
Da Silva explains how devolved administrations are encouraging women to sit on their boards or to take part in managing funds specifically designed to promote female entrepreneurship. "This is a great opportunity to promote green energy and include women and the youth in the process" says Da Silva. "It's easier to work with counties than with the national government. If more women take part locally, they will eventually shape national policies too".
He mentions the Solar Sisters, an organisation active in Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria that trains women to sell solar lamps in places where polluting kerosene is still the main source of lighting. Could a similar model be applied in cities that would benefit urban women?
Cities' energy systems have become simpler and more complex at the same time. Because they serve more densely populated communities, they are able to address energy poverty more effectively. But they can also overlook or even exacerbate inequality, as in cases where slums are left out of the urban grid, despite being located within its range. If there is insufficient lighting, women's safety is at risk during the night. Slum dwellers often connect illegally to the main grid through hand-made electricity networks that can prove fatal for whoever touches any bare cables that are used.
Experts agree that a green transition in mega cities needs to take into account a jigsaw of factors that can only partially be addressed through grassroots action. But without participation from the bottom up, any program is set to fail.
When governments and local authorities address the gender aspect of a new policy, too often they operate in a framework designed for men and try to shoehorn a gender element into it, says Valerie Loirat, project coordinator at the Association Française du Conseil des Communes et Régions d'Europe (AFCCRE).
"So let's imagine a project designed to get more girls into education,” she says. “If you open a new school and invite girls to enrol, but the journey to school and back is too unsafe for girls, you will benefit the boys only. To succeed, you have to plan and test every step of the process, from goal setting to monitoring and evaluation."
The ACCRE network, the regional branch of the Covenant of Mayors initiative, is testing a gender mainstreaming program that pairs European cities with one or more developing countries. The idea is to share experiences and support women-led initiatives; however, the project is still in its infancy and data are lacking.
International platforms, such as the Covenant of Mayors, that foster cooperation on cities' clean energy transition within the EU and beyond, have proven successful. But they often fall short when it comes to including a gender perspective in their processes.
Silvia Macron, lead of the Women4Climate initiative within C40, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change, acknowledges that although there is strong evidence that women in the global south are particularly vulnerable to climate change, “more research is needed to understand the interplay between climate impacts and gender in cities".
C40 hopes to trigger a change at both grassroots and policymaking levels through a mentoring scheme aimed at fostering the "next generation of climate leaders". But what this change will look like in practice remains uncertain.
Small-scale initiatives involving women in the clean energy transition are mushrooming all over the developing world. From female engineers to solar ambassadors, women in every sector show the ability and willpower to be agents of change. They are teaching a lesson not only to their mayors and governments, but also to international bodies and aid agencies that still roll out programs that fail to engage women.
Capitalising on the human resource that women represent will be the key to building the 'feminist' and climate resilient cities of tomorrow.