The World Urban Forum (9/1-7) gets underway Saturday in Naples, Italy to address the growing trend toward urbanization. About 3-thousand participants from 114 countries are expected to attend the conference. This year’s theme is The Urban Future.
“The World Urban Forum is a U.N. event held every two years, primarily organized by U.N. Habitat. And it’s really a space for people to come together and have a dialogue about urbanization. [It’s] possibly less of a political space, and more of a debate and dialogue space dominated by U.N. agencies, academics and particularly city-level government officials,” said Ramona Vijeyarasa of the anti- poverty organization ActionAid International.
Vijeyarasa, ActionAid’s Senior Women’s Rights Program Manager, is attending the forum.
“We’re actually at a point now where more than half the world’s population lives in cities or urban spaces. And what’s even more interesting is that the pace of urban poverty reduction has been slower than rural poverty reduction. So for us, we’re seeing a real urbanization of poverty. And I think even within the development sector, we’re not talking enough about urban poverty. And yet it’s the issue that’s affecting more of the world’s population than any other, in my view, at the moment,” she said.
Urbanization, she said, has two sides. It can bring marginalization, violence and sub-standard housing for the poor, while at the same time offering opportunities to grow and advance.
ActionAid will take part in a presentation at the World Urban Forum on the insecurity women face in cities. Vijeyarasa said this includes unlit, insecure spaces, police departments that are insensitive to women’s issues and higher levels of crime.
“Really, we’re often talking about migrant women in these areas, as well. So even more isolation and even less access to services and ways of reporting crime and violence,” she said.
She added that better urban planning can address some of these issues.
“Certainly, ideally, we would be looking at cities that are new and emerging. So a lot of the peri-urban or rural communities that are increasingly urbanizing present a really good opportunity to design the city in a gender-sensitive way. But as you know, a lot of the cities that we’re talking about, for example the work we’re doing in Kenya or Ethiopia, are already established cities. So we’re working to try and fix the problem.”
However, Vijeyarasa said there are plenty of solutions available. But she says people must first be aware of the problems before they can solve them.
She said, “I think gender really isn’t necessarily on the table. Urban planning is a very male-dominated sector. And I even expect that the World Urban Forum is a particularly male-dominated space. So the first thing is to get gender on the agenda and to seek accountability from stakeholders, who are responsible for urbanization, urban planning and safety and security. There are all sorts of mechanisms that have been tested in some places: an increased number of female police, training of police forces generally, even training of transport workers have been tried in countries like India.”
She said ActionAid research in Ghana, South Africa and India shows that young women – ages 19 to 24 – are especially vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation, and face a lack of health and reproductive services.
On the positive side, urban areas offer greater educational opportunities for women and girls, bigger markets for the goods they produce, and a chance to network with other women to form political or lobbying groups.