Why is support for gender equality mainly growing in urban areas?

May 8, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from the LSE’s Alice Evans from the LSE Alice Evans, LSE

Across the world, support for gender equality is rising. More girls are going to school. Women are increasingly being recognised and supported in historically male-dominated domains, such as employment and politics. Growing numbers of men are sharing unpaid care work. In short, young women are ‘beginning to envision a future similar to young men: education, independence, greater financial autonomy, and shared responsibility for their family’ – comments Boudet et al (2013: 37), drawing on a comparative study of twenty countries commissioned by the World Bank.

However, such egalitarian social change is largely restricted to urban areas. ‘In rural areas, [men] appear less willing to accept women’s changing roles and aspirations… [O]ne participant to a women’s focus group in in semi-rural South Africa, maintained that ‘We do not have any job opportunities, our husbands assault us, and most of the time the tribal court favors the man. So really nothing has changed”’ (Boudet et al, 2013: 140). These observations are consistent with quantitative data from Afrobarometer, World Values Surveys and Demographic and Health Surveys.

Why is growing support for gender equality largely limited to urban areas?

Zambia urbanTo investigate this topic, I set off for Zambia, where I interviewed rural-urban migrants as well as long-term rural and urban residents. My ethnographic research was based in two locations: Kitwe (the largest city on the Zambian Copperbelt and Chinsanka (a remote village on the banks of the Luapula river). Both areas speak Bemba, in which I am fluent.

My life histories, group discussions and observations point to the ‘disruptive’ tendencies of the urban.

First, urban heterogeneity increases the likelihood of exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour. Urban girls see women working: as market traders, miners, mechanics, managers and even Government Ministers. Seeing a critical mass of women performing socially valued roles seems to – slowly and incrementally – erode gender stereotypes, relating to competence and status.  It broadens their aspirations and hardens their resolve to progress in education.

Urban heterogeneity also increases the likelihood of exposure to men sharing care work. This is (very) slowly and incrementally undermining presumptions about cultural expectations, enabling a positive feedback loop. As Chilando (a 41 year old tomato trader, rural-urban migrant) comments:

‘They are very different, the village and town. It is women who do all the work at the village. Right here in town men cook and help with washing up, but that can’t possibly happen in the village! He [my husband] helps me here.  They see women going to the market… we become tired; they come so we can help each other… [But] the rules in the village are very tough, they’ll be laughing at you. Here he’s found his friends helping their wives. Things are very different in the village’ [translated].

In remote rural Chinsanka, men are revered as providers. It is they who venture out, for several weeks at a time, into the crocodile-invested Luapula river. Traversing great distances in small wooden paddle boats. Hauling in the nets at night. This is ‘men’s work’. And families are dependent upon it. Women ‘just sit’. In this context, ‘there’s little else girls see and admire besides getting married and having children’, commented Rebecca (a married 40 year old fish trader). Furthermore, with limited exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour, her parents will likely stereotype men as breadwinners and thus educate their sons instead. This perpetuates gender status beliefs – that men are more suited and entitled to positions of leadership – as reflected in the Afrobarometer data below:

Evans chart 1

A second difference between urban and rural areas is money. Reflecting a global phenomenon, Zambian women’s unpaid work is often unrecognised and unappreciated. Cooking, cleaning, sweeping, fetching water, weeding, planting, harvesting (for subsistence agriculture) are commonly referred to as ‘just sitting’ (translated). However, earning an income (more common in urban areas) provides a tangible sign of women’s contributions. This disrupts perceptions of men as breadwinners.

Third, greater proximity to government services (such as clinics and police) allows urban women to disrupt biology: control their fertility and secure external support against gender-based violence. Government services not only enable access, they are also perceived as legitimising women’s control of their bodies. This shifts presumptions about cultural expectations. Chinsanka, meanwhile, has no clinic, no police station. Teenage pregnancy rates and fertility are high, increasing dependency on male breadwinners.

Zambia ruralWhat does this tell us about the causes of egalitarian social change? It indicates the importance of exposure to a critical mass of women demonstrating their equal competence in socially valued domains, earning incomes and controlling their bodies. Moreover, it underscores the significance of cultural expectations. Paid work is not enough to empower an individual woman. Even if a rural woman earns an income, her husband is three times more likely to control that money – as compared with urban counterparts in Zambia. Place matters.

Anyway, that’s my emerging theory so far. Very keen to hear alternative perspectives on the causes of rural-urban differences. Further, what might amplify support for gender equality in remote rural areas?