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Women are at the heart of African cities. The continent needs urban policies that empower them

An International Women’s Day Special, from Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Jennifer S. Musisi and Astrid R.N. Haas.

Women have always been essential to the urban fabric of African cities. Their economic, social, and political engagements have been key to driving both productivity and liveability for our cities. As researchers, policymakers, and above all, African women, we are paying tribute to the role that women have in shaping our cities on this International Women’s Day.

Women’s centrality to African cities is not only anecdotal: there is growing evidence to support it. Collectively, we need to target our urban policies so they empower women to continue to be agents of positive change, creating more inclusive African cities in the process.

The economic woman

As the sun rises over Kampala, Nakato, carries her two youngest girls and unlocks her small shop in Naguru Go-Down, one of Kampala’s informal settlements. Her shop is small, but every space is filled with everything from small packets of washing powder to popcorn and stock cubes. She is not alone, all around her many other women are opening their small shops too.

This predominance of women in the informal service sector of the city economy dates back to colonial times. While men were able to find work in the mining and construction sectors, women were excluded from these jobs. They were compelled to earn livelihoods in other ways, many congregating in cities and towns to commercialise their domestic skills.

This feature of African cities still remains today, with women making up the majority of the informal economy. In Kampala, 70 per cent of single-person businesses, like Nakato’s shop, are led by women. Despite this predominance, men are still more likely to have larger business operations, which hire more employees and engage in trade. Our challenge is to harness the dynamism of women-owned businesses and bring them into the formal economy so they can grow and benefit from scale, specialisation, and innovation.

Policies that can be targeted to support these firms include skills training and provision of seed capital. This has been one of the focuses of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA): since 2011, over 10,000 youth and 65,000 community members have received business skills training and benefitted from start-up capital in the form of loans and agricultural inputs for urban farming projects. KCCA also has targeted programmes for women. For example, they have female adult literacy programmes, as the illiteracy rate for women in Kampala is significantly higher than for men (49 per cent compared to 23 per cent), as well as leadership skills training.


The social woman

Part of building more inclusive cities means addressing social norms that often push women into more traditional roles. This may both confine them to the non-tradeable services sector and increase their time spent on household activities, diverting time and capital away from their businesses. In addition, many women are the primary caregivers within the home, leaving them less time to work in formal jobs, which can result in gender gaps in productivity.

There is growing recognition that women are able to push back against these social norms as they gain bargaining power. Cities themselves can intrinsically support this transition: evidence has shown living in dense, vibrant, and dynamic urban spaces can significantly impact gender inclusion. There are various reasons for this: for one, cities simply expose women and men to alternatives to what may be prevailing norms, and can thus empower them to challenge the status quo. Cities also offer women a more diverse set of opportunities in employment and public services, including, for example, child care options that allow them to work.

The political woman

For cities to play an empowering role, policymakers need to design them to adequately take into account women’s roles and needs, to actively encourage women’s agency and progression. However, to date most cities across the globe have been designed and shaped primarily by and for men. In part this stems from the lack of female political representation: currently, fewer than 5 per cent of city leadership roles globally are actually held by women

In Africa, Sierra Leone is one country that has been progressive on political representation, with a long legacy of having women in leadership positions. For example, Madam Ella Kobolo Gulama, a Paramount Chief in Sierra Leone until her passing in 2006, led the way for female political representation across the continent: she was the first elected female Member of Parliament in all of sub-Saharan Africa. This legacy of female leadership has also been mirrored at the city level with Constance Cummings-John becoming the first female mayor of Freetown in 1966. Cummings-John, who also co-founded Sierra Leone’s Women’s Movement, was instrumental in the country’s struggle for independence. Since then, Freetown has been led by three more female mayors.

Growing evidence suggests that when women serve as political leaders, governments are not only more inclusive but also better at delivering public services. When women are represented in local government, they are also more likely to ensure topics important to women are actively considered. For example, Florence Dillsworth, a previous mayor of Freetown, launched a number of projects both around education and income generation specifically for women.

African cities, like Kampala and Freetown, are currently undergoing immense changes in their economic, social, and political fabric. The positive role women play in Africa’s urbanisation process is clear and evidenced. We need to continue fighting for women’s voices to be heard and ensure that they can reach their fullest potential within our cities.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Jennifer S. Musisi is city leader in residence at the Bloomberg Harvard City Initiative. Astrid R.N. Haas is manager of Cities that Work at the International Growth Centre.
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