Just came out of a parallel event called 'Women in cities' that was hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and organized by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family (SFWF).With contributions from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe, it was no surprise that it ran well overtime. The short version? Women are under-represented in decision-making positions in cities and most urban planners and politicians at the local level (and likely at the national, though this wasn't the topic) do not understand gender and have never had basic gender training. The result? Cities designed by men for men.
The presentations aimed to cover both topics, the 'who makes the decisions' and the 'what decisions do they make'. On representation, Konte Fatoumata Doumbia, the Mayor of Bamako in Mali, spoke about how all five of her deputies are men and the fact that out of 45 council members, only eight are women. Carolyn Hannman, Director of the Division of the Advancement of Women, related findings from their new research into women and politics that shows only 20% of local councillors globally are women. Of course, Fawcett's research into ethnic minority women's representation at local level has demonstrated how some groups of women are particularly marginalized within this under-representation.
On the issue of what kinds of decisions are made, and therefore how cities are designed, Hye-Jung Kim, Deputy Director of the Women's Policy Division of the Seoul Metropolican Government, presented on the Women Friendly City Project that her government is delivering. I have to admit, I liked her presentation best. She talked about how the city government is attempting to examine all areas of city life to undo gender bias and support women in the decisions they take within cities. For example, they are changing the materials that roads are made with so that women's heals don't get stuck as much. They are considering how parks are designed to make sure they are as safe as possible for women in the evenings. They have even introduced new hanging bars in subway carriages that are ten centimetres lower than the old ones so that women can reach them more easily (how long have I been waiting for that!).
One of the most important parts of the session came right at the end with the final speaker's contribution. Lucia Kiwala, Chief of the Gender Mainstreaming Unit of UN-HABITAT, reminded us about how many people live in cities, and how many more people will be moving into them in the future. Her particular emphasis was on the fact that a huge majority of the people that live and move into cities in Africa (72%) and other parts of the so-called developing world are actually living in slums. According to her statistics, 70 million people every year become slum dwellers, and the slum population, which is currently over one billion people, is set to double by 2030 if all continues as it is now.
Women living and working in slums bare the brunt of the impact of poor slum conditions. I learned that women head more of the households in cities than in rural areas, the rate of teenage pregnancy is higher in slums compared to non-slum parts of cities or rural areas, and women in slums are three and two times more infected, respectively, with HIV and AIDS compared to women in rural areas and in non-slum parts of cities.
Against this backdrop, longer subway handles seem rather besides the point. But I don't think they are. Underlying the various challenges facing women in cities are still the two basic questions we started with: who makes the decisions and what decisions do they make. How can cities designed by and for men ever lead to appropriate spaces for the urban woman whatever country she is living in?