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close this bookBasic Facts on Urbanization (HABITAT, 2001, 21 p.)
View the documentAbout
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentGeneral Demographic Trends
View the documentThe Growth of Large Cities
View the documentThe Economics of Cities
View the documentUrbanization and Feminization of Poverty
View the documentThe Challenge of Adequate Housing
View the documentHomelessness
View the documentUrban Violence
View the documentEnvironmental Deterioration
View the documentAccess to Services and Basic Infrastructure
View the documentChildren in the Urban World
View the documentSustainable Urban Development
View the documentGlobal Campaigns on Security of Tenure and Urban Governance
View the documentNotes
View the documentList of References

Urbanization and Feminization of Poverty

The rapid urbanization illustrated above, coupled with the effects of global economic recession, has resulted in a significant increase in the scale of urban poverty in developing countries. According to data on 'income poverty' - i.e. people with an income of less than about US$ 1.00 per day(13) - the incidence of poverty has remained at approximately the same level since 1985, while the number of people living in poverty has increased considerably (see table 6).(14) If we assume that the incidence of poverty has remained the same as that indicated in the table, this would imply that there will be about 1.5 billion people living in absolute poverty in developing countries by the turn of the millennium.(15) The Beijing Platform for Action noted that "In the past decade the number of women living in poverty has increased disproportionally to the number of men, particularly in developing countries."(16) As a result of this ongoing feminization of poverty some 70 per cent of the people living in poverty worldwide are women.(17)

Table 6. 'Income poverty'13 in developing countries, by region (1985-2000)

Region

Number of poor
(millions)

Poor as proportion of total population
(per cent)


World Bank

UNDP

World Bank

UNDP


1985

1997

1989-1994

1985

1997

1989-1994

Latin America & Caribbean

87

130

110

22.4

26.3

23.8

Sub-Saharan Africa

184

220

200

47.6

35.8

39

North Africa & Middle East

60

10

10

31.0

3.5

4

Asia & Pacific

714

960

980

27.4

30.9

33

South Asia (incl. India)

532

510

560

51.8

39.6

45


India

..

..

460

..

..

52.5

East Asia & Pacific (incl. China)

182

450

420

13.2

24.7

25.0


China

..

280

350

..

22.2

29.4

Total developing countries

1,046

1,320

1,300

30.9

30.0

32.2

Note: Some of the data has been calculated based on population data for the year in question (population data from 1992 has been used for the 1989-1994 period). (see also note 14)

Source: Based on UNDP, 1998a; UNDP, 1998b; United Nations, 1996c; World Bank, 1988; and World Bank, 1999.

An increasing proportion of the poor live in urban areas. One decade ago, it was projected that the majority of the poor would be living in urban areas by the year 2000.(18) These projections were based on rather optimistic scenarios, assuming that the total population living in poverty would decline. We may, however, assume that there are currently some 500-800 million people living in 'income-poverty' in urban areas of developing countries.(19)

The above does not give an accurate impression as to the scope and scale of urban poverty today. The Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development pointed out that poverty "has various manifestations, including lack of income and productive resources sufficient to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments; and social discrimination and exclusion."(20) To describe the living conditions of the urban poor better, the Global Report on Human Settlements 1996 ("An Urbanizing World") uses the concept of 'housing poverty' instead of 'income poverty', i.e. "the individuals and households who lack safe, secure and healthy shelter with basic infrastructure such as piped water and adequate provision for sanitation, drainage and the removal of household wastes."(21)

An estimated 20-25 per cent of all households worldwide are women-headed households.(22) The situation is similar in urban areas (see table 7), and the proportion is increasing in many regions in association with urbanization. There are now more women than men migrating from rural to urban areas in parts of Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Although women are not always in the lowest income groups, they suffer widespread discrimination in access to credit, housing and basic services. However, children in such households are better nourished and educated than in male-headed households with similar incomes.(23) The percentage of woman-headed households living in poverty(24) differs greatly between regions, reflecting different social structures. The incidence of poverty among woman-headed households is significantly higher than among other households in urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa (where nearly 50 per cent of all woman-headed households are living in poverty) and high-income economies, while it is significantly lower in North Africa and the Middle East (see table 7).(25)

Table 7. Woman-headed households and poverty, by region (1993)

Region(4)

Woman-headed households as percentage of all households

Poor24 households as percentage of all households

Poor24 woman-headed households as percentage of all woman-headed households

Industrial countries

22

13

21


High-income economies

23

14

25


Transitional economies

21

11

14

Developing countries

15

25

20


Latin America & Caribbean

27

38

38


Sub-Saharan Africa

24

39

46


North Africa & Middle East

23

34

13


Asia & Pacific

12

21

17

World total

18

17

20

Note: Based on data from selected cities (see note 11), for definitions see UNCHS (Habitat), 1995.

Source: Based on UNCHS (Habitat), 1998.

Rapid urban growth has been accompanied by increasing commodification of housing. Choice, in terms of selecting a neighbourhood in which to live, is increasingly becoming a function of income. The result is that the urban poor end up having very little choice at all in terms of where to live. Most cities in both industrial and developing counties are thus experiencing an increasing spatial segregation of their inhabitants. Inner-city slums and sprawling informal settlements on the urban fringes or on marginal plots of land - steep slopes, flood-prone areas, and areas close to major roads, railway lines or to polluting industries, etc. - are the only options available to the poor when the higher income groups have made their choice.

Attempts have been made to estimate the number of urban poor based on such a wider definition of poverty. The result is striking. In 1990, it was estimated that "some 600 million urban residents in developing countries live in 'life-and-health threatening homes' and neighbourhoods because of the very poor housing and living conditions and the lack of adequate provision for safe, sufficient water supplies and provision for sanitation, drainage, the removal of garbage and health care."(26) If we take an optimistic approach, and assume that the situation has since stabilised, i.e. that the incidence of such living conditions has remained the same (43 per cent), this would imply that some 835 million urban dwellers in developing countries are currently living in poverty. If, however, a more realistic approach is adopted - assuming that only a third of the urban population growth is catered for in terms of shelter provision - the number of urban poor in developing countries may well have reached 950 million by the year 2000 (i.e. 49 per cent of the urban population). If industrial countries are included in this estimate, the total number of urban poor is currently about 1.1 billion.(27)