Written by Banashree Banerjee - Urban planning and housing expert, Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Erasmus University, Rotterdam
The Asia-Pacific: a region of urban opportunity, diversity and inequality
The Asia-Pacific region is exceedingly diverse, ranging from small island developing states grappling with the impacts of climate change, to powerful global economies. Its cultural and social diversity is equally apparent especially when it comes to gender parity. The COVID-19 pandemic has widened existing gender gaps and intensified the need to tackle inconsistencies and divides of social, economic and governance processes. A UN-Women report aptly points out that regional diversity means that action to boost gender equality will not be uniform across Asia. There will be no convenient, one-size-fits-all solution that will deliver gender parity. The challenges women face in their daily lives vary from country to country, especially with respect to everyday living and working environments of women.
The common feature across the region is the rapid pace of urbanisation spurred by economic development. The poor have also benefited from the economic opportunities of cities but access to space in the city is highly contested, and poor and even middle class, families are finding it increasingly difficult to find adequate and secure housing. The nexus between the prosperity of cities and the pressure on land has created new forms of housing poverty and vulnerability, which inordinately affect women and children. We need to better understand these new places of urban poverty in the Asia Pacific cities as a first step towards inclusive cities.
The new places of poverty and gender vulnerability
The new places of poverty and gender vulnerability are very different from slums and squatter settlements as we know them. We have yet to fully understand the health, safely, living, livelihood and tenure challenges women have to cope with in these situations.
The exodus of migrants from Delhi and Mumbai back to their villages during the pandemic foregrounded the large scale and fragility of informal rental housing in cities of South Asia. Informal settlements and villages in and around cities have become hubs for migrant families, offering cheap rentals with highly inadequate services. Policies for tenure regularisation and infrastructure upgrading at best bye-pass this population and at worst lead to unaffordable rents and evictions.
Eviction of informal settlements from environmental risk-prone city areas and expensive central city lands is on the increase. The provocation to monetise central city land resources means that resettlement and new public housing projects are in peripheral locations, affecting women the most as they risk losing their jobs and social networks and have to depend on poor, uncertain and unsafe services for water, sanitation and transport. These projects are invariably in the form of high-rise building complexes where public spaces are seldom designed with the safety of women and girls in mind. A typical example is the city of Chennai in India with its massive multi-storeyed relocation projects, unacceptable to women for cultural reasons and inability to pursue home based economic activities.
The burgeoning population living on cheap land in peri-urban layouts with minimal services is a common feature across South and South-East Asia. Long and uncertain commutes to the city and lack of services affect women and children the most. But perhaps the most vulnerable are the large number of women construction workers, who build Asia’s global cities, moving from one site to another, living in make-shift accommodation with hardly any privacy and only minimal basic services. They do have rights to better housing, which are seldom observed or enforced.
Living in villages and small towns and commuting to the city for work is now an established trend. The emergence of Asian cities as factories of the world have created opportunities for women and girls, especially in garment factories. In Dhaka and Hanoi, improved regional transport linkages have made daily commutes from surrounding villages possible, but at the cost of long hours and poor work-site facilities. In Yangon, Bangkok and Shenzen, on the other hand, female factory workers migrate to the city to live in overcrowded and unhealthy dormitories. Single women migrants signify a major departure from the traditional men-only or family migration, requiring new forms of intervention.
Overcrowding in housing environments occupied by the poor has always been endemic to Asian cities but not enough attention is paid to it so far, even in public housing projects, which try to cut costs by reducing living areas. The wake-up call has come from studies on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which show that Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG).is fuelled by household, economic and food insecurity, confined living in overcrowded houses due to lockdown and social isolation measures.
Levers for change
It is clear that a range of actions and knowledge is needed to tackle deep-rooted issues and emerging patterns; and policies and practices will need to be tailored to diverse situations in individual countries. The Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 and Goal 11, as well as the New Urban Agenda are comprehensive mandates for a gendered and resilient urban future, for which all governments have signed up. While these provide the overall framework for action, it is imperative that they lead to real benefits for women’s everyday lives. That said, Asia already offers a blueprint for change with good examples of gender-positive policies and practices working around the region (tenure, networks, large projects, legislation). While many initiatives and policies already exist, perhaps we need to connect the disconnected? And that is where societal dialogues can be of help.
Hope lies also in the continuing efforts and strengthening of networks and organizations - in particular of grassroots women’s organizations -which contribute from their daily experiences. It is from this construct that the Huairou Commission (CH), the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) and Slum and Shack Dwellers International (SDI) articulate women’s issues from different countries, and it is these voices that have also influenced the Global Platform for the Right to the City (GPR2C).
To delve more into these issues, join us at the Eighth Asia-Pacific Housing Forum during the session, Improving access to housing for women and vulnerable groups that will take place at 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM (UTC+7) Thailand time on 9th December, 2021.