International Forum on Women in Urban Development and Commemoration of the 15th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women

Opening address

17 September 2010, Shanghai, China

Distinguished delegates,

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are meeting this morning in the midst of an unprecedented shift of people and economic activity from agrarian communities to urban centres.

With half of humanity now living in cities, urbanization is transforming both the present and futures of peoples worldwide.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Asia and the Pacific. The rapidly proliferating cities in this diverse and far-flung region are already home to 1.6 billion people. By 2025, this will rise to over 2.3 billion people. Over the coming two decades, the proportion of people living in cities across the region will reach 60 per cent.

Over half of the world’s largest cities are in Asia-Pacific. By 2015, this will include 12 ‘megacities’ with populations in excess of 10 million. Some of these are already so large that they are being described as ‘mega-regions, urban corridors or city regions’ with total populations in the tens of millions.

The implications of this growth are enormous. Over the next 15 years, new jobs as well as housing, water, energy, transport, education, health and cultural infrastructure will be required for an additional 120,000 people a day across the region.

There is no doubt that our growing cities are places of great opportunity. They are powerful engines of growth and progress – producing over 80 per cent of GDP across the region. It is this sense of opportunity which continues to draw millions of migrants from rural areas – including increasing numbers of women – into urban areas across Asia and the Pacific.

However, as we all know too well, the sheer pace and scope of urbanization also brings with it many challenges. These range from issues of urban poverty to sustainability, the impacts of climate change, inadequate infrastructure and ensuring effective governance.  Whether we are looking at an Asian mega-city or the growing main population centre of a small island state in the Pacific, the challenges are universal.

Distinguished delegates,

Ladies and gentlemen,

This morning I will focus on one of the most critical challenges – urban poverty, as it is an area where impacts on women’s lives and prospects are particularly stark.

Over 40 per cent of Asia-Pacific’s people still live in poverty, mainly in urban slums. This accounts for over half of the world’s total slum population. Their everyday reality is one of poor housing, lack of clean water and sanitation, limited employment prospects, inadequate public transportation, inaccessible social services and unsafe streets.

All of these daily realities profoundly affect women across our region. Let’s take livelihoods as an example.

Despite the role that female labour has played in our growing cities as a key driver of rising prosperity, women in many parts of Asia and the Pacific remain overwhelmingly concentrated in vulnerable low paid jobs or in unstable informal employment with unpredictable income levels.

In such conditions, women are often first to feel the effects of economic shocks such as those we are experiencing currently. Many are also exposed daily to exploitation and unsafe working conditions, and even sexual abuse, as they struggle to earn a livelihood.

Health provides another important lens on the realities of urban life for millions of women living in urban poverty.

Up to a third of urban residents across the region suffer ill health due to a lack of safe and reliable water and sanitation. Diarrhea amongst children is a particular issue in city slums due to their frequent proximity to swamps, open drains, solid waste dumps and polluted rivers, while contagious diseases including tuberculosis are more likely to spread in crowded urban environments.

The unequal sharing of family responsibilities which persists in all countries across the region means that women carry a disproportionate burden in coping with household health needs, especially in situations where access to social protection and basic social services is limited or non-existent.  This burden is often intensified for many women who have migrated far from their extended family networks and traditional community support in rural areas.

Looking at education further highlights the challenges facing women living in urban poverty.  Just 20 per cent of slum children go to school compared with 70 per cent more generally, with girls far more likely to miss out. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that missing out on childhood education dramatically undermines the health, employment and welfare prospects of girls in later life.

Distinguished delegates,

Ladies and gentlemen,

None of these and the many other challenges facing women living in poverty in cities across our region are insurmountable. Indeed, this forum gives us an important opportunity to review and enhance efforts to address such challenges in the context of the commitments made 15 years ago by the world’s governments at the Beijing Women’s Conference. All of the challenges I have touched on this morning are addressed as priorities in the Beijing Platform for Action.

However, as long experience of striving for gender equality tells us, unless women are a core part of political leadership and decision-making, the particular challenges they face in urban slums – and across our cities more generally – will never be tackled with the urgency that is needed for real change.

Equality between women and men in access to leadership and decision-making opportunities at all levels of society is itself a core plank of the Beijing Platform of Action. However, despite measures such as election quotas introduced in some countries, nowhere in the region are women proportionately represented in municipal governance. The same situation generally applies across the region in municipal management.

It is clear that a number of systemic barriers still hold back far greater participation by women in the governance and management of our cities.  These range from the general gender inequalities and discrimination which persist in all societies in our region, to the timing of municipal meetings which all too often don’t take into account the heavier burden of social care at community and household levels carried by women.

For decades women have been leading initiatives across the region to remove such barriers. These initiatives have ranged from the extension of electoral quota systems to community campaigns for affordable childcare services; training to strengthen the effectiveness of women who are elected; and encouragement by women already active within local politics for other women to participate.

At the same time, women at community level have provided transformational leadership in myriad ways to tackle urban development challenges head on. Across the region they have redefined political priorities locally; brought more participatory and consensual approaches to decision-making; and played key roles in innovative community employment schemes, housing projects, urban safety campaigns and community health and education programmes.

Through this forum, we need to build on these inspiring examples to transform the power dynamics and priorities of urban governance and management.  Amongst other things, we must revitalize our Beijing commitments and plan practical steps to ensure that women are full and active players in the governing and management of our growing cities at all levels – as mayors, councilors, managers and citizens.

The daily challenges facing women living in urban poverty in Asia and the Pacific – and the many other challenges and opportunities facing women in our rapidly growing cities – demand that we act decisively.

If we get it right for women in the burgeoning cities and towns of Asia and the Pacific, we get it right for two thirds of humanity. In the end, we will all benefit as a result, men and women, boys and girls, alike.