The New Urban Agenda and the Role of Women in Cities



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Women and girls continue to face discrimination, poverty and violence within cities. Women in urban poor communities do not enjoy the same social and economic rights as men, including the right to adequate housing, clean water and sanitation. Urban women living in poverty often experience a higher degree of unemployment, as well as insecurity and vulnerability to violence, as they are more likely than women from higher income groups to become victims of violence both in the public space and within their own homes. Insensitive urban policies contribute to barriers that prevent women and girls from participation as both agents and beneficiaries of urban development.

Yet evidence shows that very few countries have ever achieved sustained economic growth, rapid social development and gender equality without urbanizing. Urbanization has been a powerful driving force behind profound social, cultural and political change, including important advances in gender equality. It has long been recognized that the greater cultural diversity found in urban areas can provide an enabling environment to deconstruct social norms, entrenched gender stereotypes and traditions or customs that hold women and girls back and perpetuate discrimination against them. Herein lies the gender equality potential of urbanization.


Women and Urbanization: Challenges and Opportunities

Cities are now the primary habitat of humanity. At present, 54 percent of the world’s population resides in urban settlements; this is expected to rise to 66 percent by 2050 and surpass the six billion mark by 2045. At the same time, urban populations are becoming increasingly female and increasingly younger, with as much as 60 percent of urban dwellers expected to be under the age of eighteen by 2030. Cities represent an arena of challenges and opportunities for men and women with respect to access to essential services, access to social and economic rights such as education and health, as well as access to varied forms of livelihoods.

Yet cities are also home to deep inequality, marginalization, discrimination and despair. New migrants or even current residents can only afford to live in life-threatening sprawling slums and informal settlements. At present, 828 million people live in slums and informal settlements and the numbers continue to rise. These types of settlements are poorly connected to public transport and other essential services, such as clean water, sanitation and solid waste disposal. In these conditions life is dangerous and unhealthy, with constant barriers to a secure foothold in the urban economy. Furthermore, rapid urbanization is exerting pressure on freshwater supplies, sewage, the living environment and public health. In spite of accounting for only 3 percent of the world’s surface, it is estimated that cities currently contribute between 37 and 49 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions and it is projected that by 2050 cities will be responsible for more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Child marriage is prevalent in urban areas. One in three girls in low- and middle-income countries (excluding China) will marry before the age of eighteen. One in nine girls will marry before their fifteenth birthday. In the least developed countries the prevalence of child marriage is even higher—nearly one in two. If present trends continue, the number of child marriages each year, 14.2 million in 2010, will be nearly 16.1 million by 2030. Despite national laws and international agreements, child marriage remains a real and present threat to the human rights, lives and health of children, especially girls, in more than a hundred countries.

Migration is also greatly affecting the rate at which urbanization grows and the shape it adopts. Between 2000 and 2015 the number of international migrants increased by 41 percent to reach 244 million. Almost half of them are women. So are half of the 19.6 million refugees worldwide. Addressing the unprecedented large movements of refugees and migrants requires a more humane and coordinated approach that all countries can endorse and implement.

The intersection between planned urbanization and migration can be further observed in conflicts, for example in Syria. So far, more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Cities and towns have been targeted, and hundreds of thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed. As conditions continue to deteriorate, civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence. The Syrian conflict is primarily being fought in urban areas where 57 percent of the population lived prior to the conflict. Population density in urban areas is greatly increased by the massive inflows of internally displaced people (IDPs).

Another factor influencing urbanization is the age composition of the world population. This has changed dramatically in recent decades. Between 1950 and 2010, life expectancy worldwide rose from forty-six to sixty-eight years, and it is projected to increase to eighty-one by the end of the century.  For the first time in history, in 2050, there will be more persons aged over sixty than children in the world.

Urbanization has the potential to be a powerful tool for achieving sustainable and inclusive development. About 6.25 billion people, 15% of them persons with disabilities, are predicted to be living in urban centers by 2050. The current lack of environmental accessibility faced by people with disabilities in particular in many cities in the world presents both a major challenge and a strategic opportunity for promoting equity and inclusion.

For women, gender discrimination magnifies and adds to the challenges and risks of cities. Why? Because gender inequality represents a structural discrimination and disadvantage that permeates every challenge, opportunity and space in cities.

The challenges cities face can be overcome in ways that allow them to continue to thrive and grow, while improving resource use and reducing inequality and poverty. Therefore, cities and human settlements can be safe, prosperous, equitable places to live. But this is impossible without the inclusion of every resident in their sustainable development. In this vein, all elements of urban governance and administration, urban legislation, urban finance, and urban planning need to actively embed gender equality measures. This is the position of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the soon-to-be-adopted New Urban Agenda (NUA): inclusion makes for sustainable development.


A Personal Testimony

Having served as the mayor of Kigali, I have seen firsthand the positive power of urbanization. Today, Rwanda symbolizes the incredible resilience of the human spirit. When reflecting on the state of Rwanda in 1994, President Paul Kagame said, “Has there ever been a country more broken or more helpless?” It was deeply true, but cities are human constructs and can be planned and developed for the benefit of the entire population. For sure, it requires tireless efforts, hard choices, a visionary leadership, listening and responding to the needs of citizen and ensuring that they experience their own right to the city. These elements drove my work both as mayor and governor of Kigali Province. The benefits produced in Kigali have spilled over and transformed lives in peri-urban and rural areas too.

One of the challenges I faced as mayor was to harness the full potential of all the citizens, irrespective of income, gender and age, and with particular attention to vulnerable groups. To do so, I launched initiatives actively involving each citizen in building their rights to the city. At a general level, I invested in infrastructure, in learning, in education, in skills development and a willingness to embrace change while remaining true to our heritage. Interventions were also launched to upgrade slums and low-income housing, improve garbage collection, ban plastics, improve public transport, and beautify streets and pavements. Community involvement was a key element of these efforts and promoting people’s participation in the local city-planning decision-making process was a priority for me as mayor. For instance, through the Umuganda system local communities in Kigali gathered together on the last Saturday of the month and took part in unpaid communal work to improve life in the community.

At UN-Habitat I have consistently stressed that a gender-sensitive approach is extremely important to build a sustainable, prosperous and equitable city. Indeed, to do so, it needs to deal with the economic, educational and sociopolitical barriers that result in gender imbalances and gains only for a few. Women represent a disproportionate percentage of the urban poor, but at the same time, their contribution to economic development is tremendous. If women are empowered they become an extremely valuable resource for the development of their community. That is to say, that urban sustainable development can be fully achieved only if everyone strives to improve women’s rights, promote equal participation in decision-making, and develop services that benefit women and men equally in all programs. Ensuring women’s human rights in sustainable development means, among other things, ensuring equal access to education, work opportunities and financial services for women and men; integrating gender in laws and policies on land, housing and property rights; enhancing women’s participation in decision-making processes through inclusive governance; and ensuring women enjoy a decent level of safety and security.


2030 Agenda and the New Urban Agenda

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, together with its Sustainable Development Goals, is a plan of action for people and the planet. Ultimately, it seeks to strengthen universal peace by addressing the root causes of poverty and adopting bold transformative steps to eradicate it, thus setting the world on a sustainable and resilient path.

This century will see a substantial majority of the world’s population living in urban centers. At the recent Habitat III Conference, the New Urban Agenda was adopted—an action-oriented document which sets global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development, rethinking the way we build, manage, and live in cities by galvanizing action and cooperation among committed partners, relevant stakeholders, and urban actors at all levels of government as well as the private sector.


Today: Women in Cities

As mentioned earlier, urban populations are becoming increasingly female and increasingly younger. This is particularly evident among the urban poor. In fact, there is a clear hiatus between the contribution women make to the prosperity of cities—through their paid and unpaid labor—and the benefits they derive from it in terms of representation in urban governance, equal access to livelihoods and equal access to public space.

Urban poverty is strikingly different from rural poverty, since urban economies are heavily associated with the secondary and tertiary sectors and therefore more dependent on cash incomes to meet essential needs. As a result urban poverty has a distinctive gendered dimension, as it puts a disproportionate burden on those members of communities and households responsible for unpaid care-work—predominately women. In addition, cash-based urban economies mean that poor women are compelled, often from a very young age, to also engage in paid activities, while at the same time undertaking unpaid care-work. Consequently, combined with unequal rights to adequate housing, to minimum economic welfare, to voting and to freedom of movement in public spaces, efforts to balance paid work and unpaid care-work take a particular toll on women, and in some case, even girls.

It is widely recognized that urban women are at greater risk of being victims of violence than rural women. While gender-based violence is largely determined by gender inequalities and cultural notions of femininity and masculinity, it is also significantly linked to inadequate basic infrastructure and access to services, which increase women’s vulnerability.

In sum, while the world’s cities are increasingly accommodating more women than men, there is a wide set of factors that hold women back as integral drivers of sustainable urban development, including their unequal position in the labor market, their limited ability to secure assets independently from male relatives, and their greater exposure to violence. Therefore gender equality policies and solutions must be integral to bringing women on-board as equal partners and assets in seeking participatory methods to enhance the sustainability and quality of life for all urban residents.


Message for the Future

Women and girls currently face a myriad of challenges in urban environments, but the future is not all bleak. There has been significant progress made in gender equality across the world. Today, women have better access to basic services, improved participation in governance and more knowledge of their rights than ever before. Although urbanization presents new challenges, it also creates new opportunities. Urban women are less subjected to discriminatory and dangerous traditional practices, have more ability to participate in the economy and are less reliant on marriage and men for their health and safety. We must not give up the continuing fight for equality, but it is also important to acknowledge the progress made in a relatively short period of time.

I envisage a future, perhaps in twenty years, but more likely in fifty, where women, girls, men and boys will have the same opportunities throughout their lives. Women and girls will have equal access to education, to job opportunities, to control of their own bodies and lives and to representation in government and business. Urban centers can drive these changes, through cultural changes, innovation and education. Cities can become the beacon of hope for women, as long as we keep gender equality and urbanization high on the global agenda.


Women across the world are finding themselves in new and challenging situations. Many of their challenges are unique and different, but there are common themes. Female MPs and CEOs in London face gender-based discrimination, just as a woman selling food in the slums of Nairobi does. Women are now landowners, doctors, heads of households, migrants, ethnic minorities, lawyers and people living with disabilities. All of these groups face difficulties in gaining equal opportunity. The global spread of urbanization presents an exciting opportunity to change traditional gender roles and create opportunities for women. But in order to achieve this, we must continue to put gender equality high on the agenda. The world has never seen such rapid urbanization and such a major shift in the way human beings are living. Nor have we ever seen such a major cultural shift and break with tradition. These two phenomena must be harnessed and shaped to create a society that gives equal opportunity to all.




Deputy executive director and assistant secretary-general of UN-Habitat providing critical leadership to promote sustainable cities and human settlements globally. Previously, Dr. Kacyira held various government positions including governor of the Eastern Province of Rwanda, mayor of Kigali and an elected member of parliament. Dr. Kacyira is also a former president of the Rwanda Association of Local Government Authorities, former president of the Eastern African Association of Local Government Authorities, and former vice president of the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)


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