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Urbanization, gender and urban poverty: paid work and unpaid carework in the cities

Cecilia Tacoli


Most of the world’s population now live in urban centres, where virtually all population growth in the next century will also be absorbed. Urbanization offers unprecedented opportunities for increasing living standards, life expectancy and literacy levels, environmental sustainability and more efficient use of increasingly scarce natural resources. For women, urbanization is associated with greater access to employment opportunities, lower fertility levels and increased independence. Yet urbanization does not necessarily result in a more equitable distribution of wealth and wellbeing. In many low and middle income nations, urban poverty is growing compared to rural poverty.

Urban residents are more dependent on cash incomes to meet their essential needs than rural residents, and income poverty is compounded by inadequate and expensive accommodation, limited access to basic infrastructure and services, exposure to environmental hazards and high rates of crime and violence. This gives urban poverty a distinctive gendered dimension as it puts a disproportionate burden on those members of communities and households who are responsible for unpaid carework. Cash-based urban economies mean that poor women are compelled, often from a very young age, to also engage in paid activities. In many instances this involves work in the lowest-paid formal and informal sector activities which, at times of economic crises, require increasingly long hours for the same income. Cuts in the public provision of services, higher costs for food, water and transport, efforts to balance paid work and unpaid carework take a growing toll on women. A gendered perspective of urban poverty reveals the significance of non-income dimensions such as time poverty; and highlights fundamental issues of equality and social justice by showing women’s unequal position in the urban labour market, their limited ability to secure assets independently from male relatives and their greater exposure to violence.

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