Paula Meth is a Reader in the Urban Studies and Planning Department. She works on gender, violence and housing in the global South, including South Africa and India. This blog was originally published in Urbannet.
The term gender is used to understand the social differences between men and women and what it means to be male or female in society. Space and time affect gender relations. What might be acceptable in London, United Kingdom, may prove to be impossible in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Similarly, gender relations shift over time, and not always towards growing equality.
Informal settlements are dominant particularly across the global South, where they account for 78.2% of urban living (UN Habitat, 2003). Their qualities vary enormously. This brief overview is necessarily generalising, recognising that some informal environments may be well-located, house wealthier residents, be solidly built, serviced and relatively secure in terms of tenure.
With this in mind, key aspects of informal living, including socio-political realities, economic factors and material issues are explored here in relation to gender. The purpose is to consider the particularities that living informally can produce for gendered relations.
Issues for Men and Women in Cities
Cities have complex relationships with gender. Their planning, layout, management, and mobility can undermine women’s abilities to effectively manage domestic and paid employment demands. Poor public facilities, particularly toilets, along with elements of insecurity underpinned by higher proportions of strangers interconnecting in multiple spaces, can make cities spaces of fear and discomfort for women. Yet, they are also sites of freedom and independence for women, where expectations of greater equality can be forged through access to housing, employment, transport, and child-care.
For men, cities are also often spaces of insecurity, as urban street crime predominantly affects young men, a trend which is racialised all over the world. Cities also present new opportunities for men to explore masculine traits perhaps unavailable to them in less urban contexts. Arguably, these trends are further complicated by informal living, which shapes meanings of being female and male and patterns of gendered relationships in a myriad of ways, remembering that ultimately these are also affected by the wider political, cultural and economic processes within which informal settlements exist.
Opportunities and Challenges of Informal Settlements
In a socio-political sense, urban informal living offers some elements of freedom for women. Arguably, women can enter the informal sector more readily than the formal and this is especially true for female headed households, enhancing women’s ability to set up and ‘own’ their own house, provide shelter for children, and establish a base in the city to sleep, live and work from. Such housing presents an opportunity to escape the drudgery of rural ties and commitments, domestic labour and violence in the home. Informal spaces foster potential for female leadership, as informal politics often persists in such settings and community networks can prove effective, providing significant gendered support. Well-located informal spaces can offer improved access to education, health and policing facilities, but this is highly variable and for many, the absence of formal childcare or well-located schooling frequently hampers women’s efforts to support their families. Commonly women are very poor in such contexts and are often barely surviving.
For men, informal living can symbolise failure as pressures to provide proper housing for families proves elusive. This may result in a feeling of eroded masculinity. But informal spaces can also prove tempting for men as they may lack alternative places to live in alongside lacking avenues of legitimate income. Petty crime, drug and alcohol abuse are commonly attributed to some men in informal settlements, providing them with some income but also increasing their vulnerability to addiction and violence. In economic terms, costs of acquiring housing, self-building, and accessing services can be far cheaper than formal housing, as they often occur illegally or through informal arrangements. However this varies enormously, with water prices exorbitant in some informal contexts.
The materiality of informal living directly shapes gender relations, although in sometimes contradictory ways. For example, a lack of internal toilets and water commonly forces residents to use external facilities, or the bushes. For women, menstruation in particular affects their demands. Usage of external facilities at night places them at significant risk of (sexual) assault, particularly where lighting is poor and everyday criminality is high.
Informal housing is often typified by a lack of internal space and privacy. Structures often include single rooms with fabric marking internal boundaries. Coupled with the strain of frequent flooding, poor environmental conditions, high vulnerability to crime, and infestations of insects and rats, stress is common. These factors cause or fuel intra-household tension – including domestic violence – a significant and debilitating challenge for women. Parenting children is compromised, as poor internal divisions of space undermine efforts to manage their education, establish bedtime routines and provide teenagers with privacy. Weak and hyper-permeable structures of the dwellings undermine parents’ efforts to ensure their safety and protection from violence and crime.
Adult sexual relations are severely impacted, as privacy and space is often absent. Teenagers and young adults utilise the freedoms of informality (where it is cheaper and relatively easy to build a home) as an impetus to set up independent households early in their life-stages, which can be beneficial if escaping constrained or violent homes, but can also foster early sexualisation, teen pregnancies and undermine completion of education. Informal living, because of its often poor material reality (non-soundproof, relatively easily broken into), does however mean that in situations of domestic violence, women’s screams will illicit beneficial responses from neighbours, affording higher communal protection than may be enjoyed in more formal, private settings.
In short, informal settlements meet urgent housing needs in cities, often benefiting poor women and their families, and they will continue to be a reality of all cities in the global South in the foreseeable future. Eradicating informal settlements without providing well-located affordable alternatives has dire consequences for women and men, increasing women’s vulnerability in particular. The gendered realities that informal settlements foster need to be analysed and addressed to improve the living conditions of all inhabitants. In order to assist them with long-term security, work by relevant organisations (government at various scales alongside other organisations including local groups) must provide residents with improved access to services, safe and well-located toilets and water, enhanced building quality, increases in housing opportunities for growing families, access to schools and healthcare, improved transport connections to foster greater employability and increases in rights to land and housing.