Why is Support for Women’s Rights Rising Fastest in the World’s Cities?

December 20, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Alice Evans

Support for gender equality is rising, globally. People increasingly champion girls’ education, women’s employment, and leadership.

Scholars have suggested several explanations for this trend:

(a) the growing availability of contraceptives (enabling women to delay motherhood and marriage);

(b) domestic appliances (reducing the volume of care work);

(c) cuts in men’s wages and the rising opportunity costs of women staying at home; and

(d) seeing women in socially valued roles.

These theories are plausible. But can they account for rural-urban differences?

Across Asia and Africa, urban residents are more likely to support gender equality in education, employment and leadership than their rural compatriots. This holds even when controlling for age, education, employment, income, and access to infrastructure. Likewise, in the 2016 US elections, city-dwellers were more likely to support Hillary Clinton (controlling for geographic region, education, income, age, race, and religious affiliation). Why is this?

[poll id=”53″]

To explore these possibilities, I undertook ethnographic research in rural and urban Cambodia and Zambia: living in rural and urban areas; interviewing migrant workers; farmers; fishermen; traders; students; teachers; office-workers; politicians; and government officials.

My data suggests that cities can catalyse gender equality because they: (1) raise opportunity costs; enable (2) exposure to alternatives; (3) association; and (4) proximity to services.

First, cities often raise the opportunity costs of gender divisions of labour: higher living costs; more economic opportunities for women (in services and manufacturing); and the contemporary precarity of male employment. These macro-economic changes mean that urban Zambian and Cambodian families increasingly see women’s work as advantageous.

Second, cities enable exposure to alternatives. People living in interconnected, heterogeneous, densely populated areas are more likely to see women in socially valued, masculine domains. Seeing women mechanics, breadwinners and leaders increases people’s confidence in the possibility of social change. This catalyses further experimentation, and generates a positive feedback loop.

Third, cities enable association with diversity. People may shift their norm perceptions (beliefs about what others think and do) by chatting and sharing ideas in cafes, markets, and offices: seeing others condemn inequalities, demonstrate zero tolerance of abuse, and champion women leaders.

Nsenga (41, circular migrant, fish wholesaler): In the village, there are no educated women for girls to look up to, so they don’t aspire for employment.

Annie (45, widow, circular migrant, fish wholesaler): But here in town, there are nurses, teachers, doctors. Girls think, ‘if I am educated then I can be a doctor’. Here in town children see everyone going to school but in the village, they just see two people…

Nsenga: Here in town a woman may stop school to give birth, then she will be desperate to return to school and finish. But in the village, they just give birth and it’s all over. It’s because of early marriage. There’s nothing else they see and aspire for [translated from Bemba].

Alice: What do you think of Phnom Penh? [speaking to trainee flight attendants]

Son: I meet new people, we share our experiences. But in rural areas, we just stuck with the old ideas. The idea is stuck because we don’t go out. [Here in the city] I feel wonderful. Seeing women dress up beautiful, earn their own living.

Bopha: I saw a woman driving a tuk tuk.

Son: Now it’s common.

First author: How did you feel, seeing her?

Bopha: I feel strange. Why don’t she find other job, like seller or company? I’ve never seen that before.

Son: It really impressed me, because what a man can do a woman can do…

Chanda: It shows men I can do it.

This process is much slower in rural Cambodia and Zambia. Rural remoteness and homogeneity curb exposure to alternatives, dampening confidence in the possibility of social change, deterring deviation.

Fourth, urban women are closer to health and police services – so potentially more able to control their fertility and secure external support against gender-based violence. But if these service-providers are unhelpful (e.g. blame victims), then proximity is no safeguard.

Urban experiences are also mediated by macro-economic context, the sectoral composition of job growth, and occupational status. While Zambian market traders learn from a bustling diversity of assertive women, home-based workers are more socially isolated. There are also limits to Cambodian factory work: long hours, berated, harassed, and closely controlled. Breaks are brief: gulp a sugary drink, guzzle a plate of rice and fatty meat, compare bundles completed, then hasten back for the bell.

In sum, cities seem to catalyse slow, incremental progress towards gender equality, by

(1) raising the opportunity costs of economic inactivity;

(2) amplifying exposure to alternatives;

(3) enabling association with diversity; and

(4) increasing proximity to services.

Cities may also catalyse other dimensions of socio-political change – e.g. social mobilisation, democratisation, and accountability. People living in interconnected, diverse, densely populated areas are more likely to hear critical discourses; see slogans of resistance emblazoned in street art; learn about successful activism; realise widespread support for change; and gain confidence in the possibility of reform.