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Women's Health and the World's Cities

This collection of essays, written by urban planners, scholars, medical practitioners, and activists, examines the impact of urban living on the well-being of women and girls in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States.

Women's Health and the World's Cities

Edited by Afaf Ibrahim Meleis, Eugenie L. Birch, and Susan M. Wachter

2011 | 352 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $32.50
Public Policy / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

—Amy Gutmann
Introduction: Developing Urban Areas as if Gender Matters
—Afaf Ibrahim Meleis

Chapter 1. Women's Health and the City: A Comprehensive Approach for the Developing World
—Julio Frenk and Octavio Gómez-Dantés
Chapter 2. Policy for a Better Future: A Focus on Girls and Women
—Ruth Levine
Chapter 3. Girls' Health and Educational Needs in Urban Environments
—Varina Tjon-A-Ten, Brad Kerner, Shweta Shukla, and Anne Hochwalt
Chapter 4. Making Cities Safe for Women and Girls: Integrating a Gender Perspective into Urban Health and Planning
—Claudia Garcia-Moreno and Manupreet Chawla

Chapter 5. Design of Healthy Cities for Women
—Eugenie L. Birch
Chapter 6. Are Women Victims, or Are They Warriors?
—Sheela Patel
Chapter 7. Women with Disabilities and Cities
—Rosaly Correa-de-Araujo
Chapter 8. The Health and Well-Being of Immigrant Women in Urban Areas
—DeAnne K. Hilfinger Messias

Chapter 9. Women's Health in the Urban Community: National Institutes of Health Perspective
—Vivian W. Pinn and Nida H. Corry
Chapter 10. Transforming Urban Environments
—Diane Cornman-Levy, Grace Dyrness, Jane Golden, David Gouverneur, and Jeane Ann Grisso
Chapter 11. Bearing Witness: Women in Cities as Agents of Transformation for God
—Grace R. Dyrness
Chapter 12. Accessibility to Health Care in Urban Environments
—Francisca M. Mwangangi
Chapter 13. Mobilizing Communities to Prevent Violence Against Women and HIV in Kampala, Uganda
—Tina C. Musuya
Chapter 14. Philanthropy and Its Impact on Urban Women's Health
—Katherina M. Rosqueta and Carol A. McLaughlin
—Susan M. Wachter

List of Contributors

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Developing Urban Areas as if Gender Matters
—Afaf Ibrahim Meleis

The world is becoming more urbanized, and urban populations are growing at an unprecedented pace. More than half of the world's population, approximately 3.5 billion people, live in cities; by 2030 this number is expected to increase to almost 5 billion. People are moving to urban areas seeking new opportunities, new options, freedom in choices, and better resources. Women in particular believe that they can improve their status, position, and their children's opportunities by seeking work and educational opportunities for themselves or their children in the cities. Many even venture beyond their own countries in search of a better quality of life.

Increasing urbanization is not only a U.S. phenomenon; rather, it is a global phenomenon. Although most of this growth in numbers of urban dwellers and in migration to urban areas is occurring in higher income nations, similar migration patterns are occurring in developing nations as well, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The United Nations has estimated that in the early twentieth century approximately sixteen cities in the world had populations of at least 1 million. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately 400 cities were this size. Megacities, defined by the United Nations as metropolitan areas with a total population of more than 10 million people, are also increasing in number, and many of these will be located in the developing world.

As urbanization increases, the number of urban poor will also continue to rise. Many of these will be women moving from rural to urban areas and across countries with dreams of finding better lives, more educational and health resources, and fewer restrictions on new freedoms. Among these women are the Syrian, Filipina, and Thai maids, nannies, cooks, and housekeepers who work in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. They are the mail-order brides from Korea, Lithuania, Estonia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Germany, and the United States. They are the female nurses from all over the world who live and work in Brunei, Kuwait, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries far from their homes.

Most, if not all, of these women settle in urban areas that are not designed with their safety in mind; nor is access provided to resources that meet their unique and universal needs. While urbanization comes with new opportunities and many options, it is often hazardous to women and to their health. The process of urbanization contributes to a scarcity of resources, lack of infrastructure, and deprivations in social structure. In urban areas, women face new health risks caused by poor sanitation, lack of electricity, as well as more pollution, stress, crime, and traffic accidents. In congested cities, women also face an increased risk of communicable diseases and infections. Women are more compromised than men under these urban conditions due to gender inequities and to a lack of awareness among urban developers and policymakers of their specific needs and concerns. Urbanization creates new issues for health and health care for women, and although there has been attention to the relationship between urbanization and health, less is known about the intersection of these three subjects: urbanization, gender, and health. A focus on the role of gender in urban health is absent from dialogues about urbanization. Further, limited dialogue exists on the intersection between public spaces and women's health-care needs. Urban environments, with their specific social and structural characteristics, have an undeniable impact on the health and well-being of urban populations, especially on women, who are more at risk because of the prevailing gender divide and limited access to resources and health services. This book is designed to provide a platform for a robust dialogue about the social and physical environments and space configurations in which women live, and the impact of the urban environment and its planning on the health of women. The goals of the chapters that follow are to stimulate urban planners and women's health professionals to initiate dialogue about, and research into, the intersection between urbanization and women's health.

Broadly, the aim of this book—Women's Health and the World's Cities— is to examine urban planning to identify areas with the potential to better support women's health. Far too often, professionals from all fields, from health-care professionals to policymakers to urban planners, assume that structuring a healthy environment for a woman is the same as structuring a healthy environment for a man. In fact, women's needs are unique. Remarkable opportunities to have a profound impact on urban women's lives can result from opening a multidisciplinary dialogue among professionals from all facets of health care, health policy, and urban design, among other areas.

This leading-edge, solution-driven volume is meant to inspire dialogue about contemporary issues that affect urban women's health and life experiences. National and international authors of individual chapters are actively involved in urban development or in researching, planning, and advocating for women's health programs. They are experts in the fields of urban design, health sciences, health policy, law, social policy, education and sociology, among others. Some of the chapters are more oriented toward research, whereas others integrate scholarship with activism. Resolving issues related to vulnerable and marginalized populations requires integrating empirical, theoretical, and advocacy approaches. This book provides academicians and professionals the opportunity to evaluate frameworks and research evidence about the effect of urbanization on women's health and, conversely, the effect of women's health on urban communities. Women play critical roles in our societies—as mothers, providers, leaders, caregivers, and volunteers— that give them an exponentially powerful role in guiding not only their own health but the health of their children, their families, and their community. With these points in mind, the book's contributors present models of interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration among urban women's health researchers, urban planners, policymakers, clinicians, philosophers, and community workers from the Global South and Global North, and encourage further networking and collaboration; propose an agenda for urban women's health that identifies general crosscutting items as well as strategies for specific localities; and present strategies and best practices for economically efficient delivery of health promotion, health education, and disease and injury prevention guidelines for urban women in the Global North and Global South.

Authors address common themes, including the properties of urbanization that intersect with women and their health, and the most significant determinants of vulnerability and risk for women. Among these are aging, violence, poverty, and access to health care. All authors offer strategies for improving urban women's health by improving the spaces in which they live.


Life in cities entails negative as well as positive aspects. Urbanization may offer more opportunities overall, such as better educational oppor tunities, diverse employment options, networks that open doors, more access to resources, better health care, and more advanced transportation. Urbanization may also pose risks for women, such as harassment, violence, costly health care, transportation issues, and changes in lifestyle that put women at risk for disease.

Often, inequality in cities becomes more pronounced as cities develop and expand, particularly when expansion is due to an inflow of already disadvantaged groups such as migrants, immigrants, rural people, women, and minorities. Very often, favelas, Ashish, shanty cities, and slums form to accommodate the newcomers. These accommodations are characterized by poor sanitation, unsafe drinking water, high population density, lack of transportation, violence, and unsafe sex practices. In such environments, women become even more vulnerable than men due to gender inequities. In some urban slums, a third of homes are headed by women. Compared to their male counterparts, these women are even more at risk because they tend to have lower paying jobs and higher illiteracy rates due to lack of education, which cause major financial and social stressors that can profoundly affect their health.

Urban areas are characterized by the nature of their social capital and physical capital. Social capital is the glue that binds members of a community together. It is "the patterns and intensity of connections within and between social networks that combine to create shared value and benefits." A community's social capital is measured by its inhabitants' perceptions of livability and their estimation of the extent to which they feel they can get help from one another. It is also measured by their sense of belonging and the trust they place in their neighbors. Vulnerable populations such as women, immigrants, migrants, and minorities are in greater need of a social safety net composed of a critical mass of individuals with whom they can develop trust, bond, and form strong ties. Social capital has been associated with preventive behaviors. Communities with strong ties provide information, support, babysitting, elderly care, emergency care, access to car pools, and shared responsibilities when needed. Women organize and manage such resources as they need and utilize these resources for themselves and for their families. Communities without strong ties, where individuals are isolated, lack the support and resources women rely on to care for themselves and their families.

The physical capital of urban areas can be characterized in terms of walkability, transportability, aesthetics, and safety. These measures reflect the extent to which the environment promotes exercise and activity, provides access to healthy food, and makes access to health care available. Urban areas designed without attention to safety produce less walkability and tend to increase weight-related chronic conditions as well as self-reported poor health risks. The nature and problems of a community's physical capital influence the nature of its social capital. The way an urban area is organized—the safety of its streets, the availability of space for meeting others, the location of resources including how shopping for essential needs is organized, the density in living and the type of housing—affects how and where people meet and the connections they develop with one another.

Women's Health

Women's lives connect to geography and space in many different ways. Among these are women's relationships with their homes, with their kitchens, and with their places of work and the immediate spaces surrounding them. Although women have been influential in the design of private spaces, their influence on public spaces has been relatively absent. Gender and urban development has received minimal attention. Feminist geographers have uncovered and discussed some of the gender spatial segregations that have existed in the private lives of women; similar dialogues on public spaces are still needed.

Urbanization creates physical demands on women due to new waged work, urban stressors, limited convenient transportation, demands on their time, and new complexities in their lives. Employment opportunities have both positive and negative effects on women's health. Although access to waged work can improve women's health by allowing poor urban women to become more independent and by improving their social and economic situations, it can also have negative consequences. These women often find themselves having to work in substandard employment conditions that can be harmful to their health. They often work in underpaid, unsafe jobs in industries where they are exposed to toxic substances and environmentally hazardous conditions that can have profound effects on their physical and mental health. Although some women are able to ease their work burdens by obtaining domestic assistance, those who are hired are mostly women whose health is jeopardized by the nature of the work or by the lack of access to health care. Most of these women are migrants or immigrants to urban areas.

Lower paying jobs and fewer employment opportunities create difficulty for women in renting or owning houses, as that requires capital or credit, both of which are more challenging to obtain for vulnerable populations such as women than for advantaged populations, since they face greater poverty. Also, when housing is insecure, so too is the ability to find healthy food due to a lack of access to full-service supermarkets and farmer's markets, which are all made readily accessible in more stable communities; when healthy food is inaccessible, illness may follow.

In addition, women face a myriad of other health issues that are best served by gender-specific responses; these include cancer, obesity, hypertension, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and depression. These issues are often exacerbated by such challenges as air, water, and land pollution; environments that promote sedentary lifestyles due to lack of space and a dearth of opportunities for physical activity; genderspecific marketing campaigns that lead to increases in the consumption of tobacco and alcohol by the targeted audience; traffic accidents; exposure to stress and violence; and limited access to healthy and fresh foods. Lack of access to healthy food with limited support from a network (due to migration or immigration) place women at new risk. These all serve as examples of how women often bear the heavier burden of urban development problems due to gender inequities in society, limited education, and a lack of awareness of their needs among urban developers and policymakers.

Health disparities related to gender and poorly conceived approaches to women's health pose a dire threat considering that, in many societies, women are the backbone of families and communities and the keepers of social values and capital. Though recognition of the centrality of women for family, community, and society's health has increased over the years—as manifested by a focus on microfinancing and lending to women—a focus on women and their health and welfare continues to lag in many parts of the world. Lowering women's morbidity and mortality rates, improving their education, and raising their incomes are still at the top of the unachieved Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Other challenges include translating research into practice and policy and implementing best practices in community interventions.

Health Risks for Women in Urban Areas

So what are some of the major health risks women face in urban areas? Kettel argued that women's relationships with their geographical spaces are laden with environmental hazards that put them at risk that is clearly gender-differentiated. Lack of careful gendered planning leads to "disease environments" for women. Lack of access to health care in general and preventive services in particular is one of the major determinants of poor health. Gender differences in health and illness patterns are the product of both biology and the sociocultural context in which people live.

Lack of access to health care translates into increased infant and maternal morbidities and mortalities. Whether or not women's needs are met for reproductive health care is predicated on cost, time, availability, transportation ease, and ability to take time from work—all of which are imbedded in urban planning. The geographical location of women's health clinics becomes more challenging in urban areas due to congestion, population density, and distance. Problems in accessing reproductive health care have been well manifested and addressed in rural areas; similar dialogues and planning need to be addressed in urban areas. Even when data indicate that urban dwellers enjoy better health outcomes than rural dwellers, when income, environment, and other variables are considered, women in urban settings are more vulnerable to mental illness and to infections and are more at risk for cancer, reproductive health problems, and other environmentally related problems than are women in rural areas.

Another particularly vulnerable group in urban areas is elderly women. Life expectancy is increasing worldwide as is the proportion of people who are considered old (age 65 and over). Women tend to live longer than men; therefore women are either the caregivers of their spouses or other family members who need care, or they are living alone with limited resources for their own care. Urban areas tend to isolate the elderly, making it difficult to create social networks, particularly in socially disadvantaged areas. Aging in general makes people more vulnerable to chronic illness and other aging phenomena, and aged women particularly are vulnerable in urban areas due to limited or fixed incomes, isolation, dehydration, limited access to health care, and climate changes, particularly heat and cold waves. Furthermore, they are more vulnerable to harassment, violence, and injuries, particularly when urban areas are not developed with good lighting and easy and accessible transportation. As more elders wish to age at home, urban planning must pay greater attention to their needs. One of the major health hazards that women and girls face in urban areas is exposure to many forms of violence. They encounter harassment, sexual advances and coercion, rape, intimate partner violence, injury, and murder. Urban environments exacerbate the emotional scars that women suffer from due to their gender. Dating violence is prevalent among urban youth and is associated with suicide attempts among adolescent girls. Accessible screening must be provided as well as mental health services.

There is a connection between physical space and greater vulnerability to violent acts. Environments designed with more lighting, better transportation, and more emphasis on density and organization of urban areas may decrease the risk of violence to women. Communities that are safer and more walkable tend to have lower crime rates; individuals who live in these communities tend to have lower body mass, to exercise more, to have healthier eating habits, and to be generally healthier.

Another major risk factor for women and their health is poverty. Poverty and economic inequities (which exacerbate health risks for women) exist within cities, and these risks affect women differently in developing and developed countries. Economic poverty is associated with environmental poverty. The urban poor are highly vulnerable to many health hazards. They live at the periphery of cities in shanty communities and in Ashish and favelas. Those who live in these slum areas suffer from lack of hygiene and sanitation, limited clean water, inadequate sewage systems, and insufficient transportation infrastructure, making access to health care and resources even more meager.

As managers of the lives of their families, women also become the managers of systems needed to care for their families, which include water, transportation, social support, and food. As a result of negotiating these systems, women face increased stresses and burdens, making them more vulnerable to the hazards of negotiating these systems as well as to the infections, chronic diseases, and malnutrition that are ubiquitous in impoverished urban areas. Thus transportation planning, for example, needs to be seen as a women's issue.

Recommendations for the Future of Healthy Cities and Healthy Women

Gender matters in urbanization and globalization. In any dialogues about the development of nations, there is a global recognition of the centrality of women. This recognition is manifested in the Millennium Development Goals, which were developed in 2000 by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world and ensure their basic human rights (the top five of the eight goals address women's issues such as poverty, education, maternal and infant mortality rates, and infections). The designation of the United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women (UN Women), developed after ten years of dialogues and recommendations to the secretary-general of the United Nations, and the appointment of Melanne Verveer as the U.S. ambassador for global women's issues by President Barack Obama, are indications of recognition of the vital role that healthy and educated women play in developing communities and nations and for how world diplomacy can be enhanced by educating and empowering women through paying attention to designing healthy environments for them.

Urban planners must consider five forces in planning and developing urban areas in order to improve women's lives. The first condition is that there is momentum for improving the situation and status of women through empowering them by providing access to education, health care, healthy lifestyles, and resources in urban areas. This momentum must be the force for continuity in designing urban areas that are responsive to women's needs. That leads to the second important condition—developing cities with women's needs in mind. Women want to live in safe environments with better lighting, lower population density, and spaces that permit connections and allow them to provide the care that their roles demand to meet the needs of their children, friends, partners, elders, and other family members. This means providing access to resources for their children's needs as well as elders' needs. Improving conditions in or replacing slums, where many women newcomers to the city live, must be part of urban planning and development. Urban planning for women must acknowledge the inadequacy of shanty cities, favelas, Ashish, and other low-income areas for black, Latino, and immigrant communities. Gender-sensitive and age-sensitive approaches to urban development should be included. A third condition in planning urban dwellings and infrastructure is to pay attention to the sociocultural context and religious mores that drive, and often dictate, women's movements, educational and working options, and housing needs. Developing urban areas in religiously conservative Muslim or Jewish communities or in socially strict societies requires different criteria and guidelines that determine the physical and social capitals and hence the space configurations. The fourth vital condition is to seek and include women's voices in planning decisions. Women should be key players in the policies and plans used for the development of communities. Involving women in policies related to urban planning and development ensures that their perspectives, needs, and voices are included in designing spaces with women's needs in mind. The fifth and most important condition is to develop a conceptual framework that provides a structure for systematically investigating gender and its impact, or lack of it, on urban environments as well as on health and well-being. This conceptual framework would drive the design and translation of research programs into gender-sensitive urbanization development plans. Questions that should be addressed relate to the differences in urban living between men and women and to differences in health outcomes among those who live in urban areas with differential incomes, and theories should be developed that are sensitive to defining and investigating the nature of gender disparities that are characteristic of those who live in urban areas. Preventing urbanization's spatial, social, and health risks for women through careful advance planning will be far more effective and productive than intervening after the fact.


The MDGs galvanized world leaders to forge global partnerships to achieve these universal objectives by 2015. These eight goals are:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a Global Partnership for Development

While the top five goals are clearly related to women and their health care, all the goals address the challenges and opportunities of providing quality and accessible health care for women. This disparity between rich and poor countries makes it difficult for poor countries to achieve the MDGs. By all indications, most of these goals have not been achieved in most of the world. In September 2010, world leaders reconvened at the United Nations in New York to review the progress being made in achieving the eight goals. Although some progress has been made in the efforts to reduce poverty, disease, and environmental degradation, much work still needs to be done to successfully attain many of the MDGs by 2015. In 2005, it was estimated that 1.4 billion people were still living below the poverty line. According to the United Nations, today one in four children under the age of 5 are malnourished due to lack of food, lack of clean water, and poor sanitation and health services. The gap between the rich and poor is a major deterrent in achieving the MDGs, particularly those related to women and girls, and it must be eliminated. Girls living in 20 percent of the most impoverished households in developing nations are 3.5 times more likely not to be enrolled in schools than girls in affluent households and four times more likely to be out of school than boys from the richest households. This large gap between the rich and poor also affects the improvement of maternal health due to differences in access to professional health services. For example, in many parts of the developing world, fewer than half of women have access to skilled health personnel when giving birth. The absence of a common framework between rich and poor countries also makes it difficult for the exchange of knowledge and lessons learned, thus hindering progress and widening the gap between them.

Gender equality and the empowerment of women are central to the MDGs and therefore necessary to achieve these goals. Global health problems require global solutions, and global solutions require partnership and better communication. Addressing urbanization and urban development while considering women's needs for safety, education, access to quality health care and support, healthy food, and a healthy environment may be a catalyst for achieving these vital goals for the well-being of nations.

The chapters that follow discuss the issues that women face living in urban areas in the United States, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, and examples are given of how urbanization can either promote or hinder better health care for women. In addition, authors discuss creative solutions to living in slums and in unsafe environments. Partnerships between private and public organizations as well as governmental, national, and international organizations are vital for developing and implementing gender-sensitive solutions to urbanization; the chapters provide insights into what global agencies, such as the World Health Organization, as well as U.S. agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health's Office of Research on Women's Health and the Department of Health and Human Services, are proposing as strategic goals for the future. This book examines the risks faced by women in urban areas s well as ways to enhance the health and safety of women by better planning of urban areas. This volume reflects the dialogues among scholars, clinicians, and activists about best practices to advance women's issues. The combination of empirical and tacit knowledge gives the needed support for women's voices to be heard. The integration of the diversity of methods, frameworks, evidence, advocacy, and the required support to reinforce actions in developing models of care and instituting changes is what will make a difference in designing healthy environments for women.

And when women are healthy and safe, so are their families and communities.

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