MARCH 2022

An insight into Women’s Rights and Urbanization in African Cities

Janet Ami Husunukpe is a graduate student of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, USA. She is also a Research Assistant and a Ghanaian trained Architect. Her research seeks to investigate and understand how the planning, design and use of infrastructure and urban spaces in African cities promote segregation and marginalization, thereby reimagining a feminist vision of urban rooted in the urban realities of African context and distinct from western models of what urban development and feminist urban development entails.

Rapid urbanization in Africa has resulted in a radical transformation in the structure of urban centers (Eshiet, 2008). Grassroots women have contributed physically, socially, economically, and politically to the growth of the urban city. Yet “development” and up-gradation of the city to fit westernized standards of the modern city have resulted in grassroots women’s displacement and marginalization. Planners, designers, and other professionals of the built environment attempt to address the needs of the marginalized, however, they fail to tackle the colonial, neoliberal and modernist policies that foster patriarchy and contribute to continuous marginalization in the modern city. Therefore, many grassroots women continue to experience unequal opportunities and access to the city despite the existence of social movements advocating for equal rights. Though many contend that displacement is the collateral damage for development to take place and equitable development is merely but a myth, it is indeed possible to achieve equitability in development, especially in African cities. However, comprehending how equitable development can be achieved requires a deep-rooted understanding of the role of colonial capitalism, neoliberal and modernist policies, and customary laws in fostering segregation, marginalization, and displacement in African cities.

Colonial capitalism institutionalized gender-based operations (Fredoline, 2002), was largely responsible for women’s domination in unwaged social reproduction, gender segmentation of the labor market, and male domination in the politics of the city. It also set the pace for tailoring economic agendas according to gender relations and the systematic impoverishment of grassroots women. In pre-colonial Africa, men and women performed complementary roles, based on the division of labor and interdependence, under an agrarian economy. However, the influx of colonialism and thus urbanization resulted in the shift from a ‘collective” or community order of daily life to individualism, and a rigid distinction between the productive and reproductive spheres of life. While men engaged in the productive spheres of life, earning wages and recognition for their contribution to society, women engaged in unpaid reproductive tasks (Eshiet, 2008), necessary to maintain capitalism (Federici, 1975). Colonial capitalism also created unintentional segregation between men and women, in the economic and social strata of life, as well as in the urban space, much of which is still experienced today. In Nairobi Kenya, like other African colonial cities, only wives living in households retired prostitutes registered domestic servants, and householders had rights to live in the city (Fredoline, 2002; Frederiksen, 2001). Colonialism geared education towards training men to fit the western standard while sidelining women and consciously making sure that these men do not gain equal bourgeois status as their European counterparts (Hansen, 1984). In instances where women received an education, it mostly focused on domesticated training to make good homemakers, mothers, and child-bearers and raisers, just like their counterparts in Europe. This was necessary to provide the next generation of laborers to feed the capitalist economy (Robertson, 1998; Chen, et al, 2018; Federici, 1975). As such, certain urban spaces such as market squares became a feminine leisure activity, heavily dominated by women. While men dominated the civil service and other white-collar occupations and enjoyed leisure spaces such as bars and many other nightlife activities. These boundaries however began to break down as women achieved greater economic independence (Chen et al, 2018). Colonial capitalism also displaced rural living widely prevalent in Africa and promoted cities as centers for wage labor and hubs for modernization. It established the idea of modernism as a symbol of social betterment, with the state as the central employer of wage labor and salaried men in the formal sector constituting the middle-class elites, while the majority of migrant workers worked in mines and industries in the city. Though not explicitly mentioned, the colonial city was a bachelor town, with living quarters designed as bachelor quarters discouraged men from bringing their families to the city. It however encouraged the sale of sex and alcohol as a means to reduce trips by migrant workers to their families in the rural communities (Hansen, 1984). Colonial capitalism however failed to acknowledge the significant yet unpaid contribution of women in social reproduction and assumed that migrant unmarried males dominated the labor market, with wages enough to support the needs of a single worker, rather than his family back home. Thus, bestowed on rural women the heavy burden of engaging in subsistence agriculture, with controlled access to land, to support the needs of the family and provide a backbone for the migrant spouse (Fraser, 2009; Federici, 1975; Hansen, 1984). In addition, customary laws in rural Africa limited women’s access to lands. In certain jurisdictions, the practice of formal statute law is irrelevant and customary laws take precedent. In some local levels as well, customary norms apply, and the laws limiting women’s property and land rights govern about 65 percent of land in Kenya. These customs uphold patriarchal values and norms and convey on men the sole decision-makers, owners, and controllers of land and property (Gaafar, 2014; Gray & Kevane, 1999). Thus, while women supply 70% of labor in the agricultural sector, they possess only 1 percent of land-titled deeds, and about 5 percent of lands are titled jointly by women and men (Amanda, et al., 2007; Gaafar, 2014; Sitole, 2018) despite heading about 32 percent of households (Mbugua, 2020). Burdened with this task without a reliable support system, these women migrated to the colonial urban cities to secure better conditions of life, by engaging in non-formal sectors of the urban economy (Hansen, 1984). Women thus constituted the informal sector, developing alternative forms of livelihood to survive in the modernist city (Matlon, 2016). For instance, in Kenya, eighty-seven percent of women in non-agriculture activities are engaged in the informal sector (Kinyanjui, 2013). However, colonial cities planned and designed to suit western standards reject urban informality and thus sideline the informal sector, even though this sector contributes significantly to the economy and development of cities. Interestingly, the term informal economy has a western origin, which regarded non-western traders and artisanship as informal (Kinyanjui, 2013). Further, Neoliberal and modernist policies due to the influence of colonial capitalism, have promoted privatization and gentrification as well as socioeconomic segregation and marginalization in African urban spaces. The domination of grass root women in the informal sector economy, therefore, places them at the core of urban inequalities and adversely affected by these policies. Denied access to housing, grassroots women seek shelter in unsafe, impoverished, and vulnerable housing conditions, while burdened with the task of ensuring better sanitation and access to drinking water in the household and enduring threats of violence on the streets and within urban spaces (Eshiet, 2008). However, their determination to lay claim to urban spaces is regarded as an encroachment.

Spatial creators have thus created urban spaces favorable to the needs of the middle and elite class while grassroots women continue to experience unequal positions despite the existence of social movements advocating for equal rights. Even though diversity and experience of different groups birthed urban spaces, as the identity of urban spaces is based on the experiences of its citizenry (Bross, 2020), policies affecting these diverse groups are rarely formulated based on the input of each group. Granted, planners and policymakers consciously formulate policies that ensure inclusivity and adherence to women’s rights but in practice, these policies are merely rubberstamped. Perhaps this is because of the limited influence of grassroots women in statutory planning processes, as disconnection between inhabitants and their ability to participate in the production of spaces remains the major limitation of the modern city. Therefore, enhancing the status of women and ensuring feminist urbanism requires collective action, involvement, and influence of women from the grassroots to the national levels, on economic, political, and social issues, especially in areas that influence them. To address this, we should acknowledge that, unlike previous assumptions, economic growth is biased against women, first in access to land and rights to the city. Thus, the future of urbanism especially in Africa starts from first acknowledging the tremendous contribution of indigenous women’s development, only then can we achieve equitable development in the city.


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