With Africa facing near-unprecedented population growth, urban cities have sparked across the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, has become the world’s fastest urbanizing region. Compared to rural areas, cities experience greater economic growth and job opportunities. Most importantly, sub-Saharan urbanization increases gender equality.
Africa’s gender disparities run deep. While African women work 50% longer hours than men, men make disproportionately more money than women. Furthermore, 70% of women are financially excluded. These financial gaps systematically subordinate women, moving the continent further from equality. The lack of female employment also disrupts economic growth and future development. Moreover, according to Global Partnership, gender-based violence affects women yearly and at high frequencies.
These issues, though, have not received attention for decades. Only now does sub-Saharan urbanization increase gender equality and present a promising solution.
In sub-Saharan Africa, urbanized areas have heavily invested in education and schools. Between 1970 and 2022, as urbanization increased, education synchronously also increased. Secondary school completion nearly doubled, and graduation rates grew.
Urban education, compared to rural education in Africa, is a considerable advancement. Schools in rural communities have a significant distance between them. In South Africa, transport distances are a structural barrier to rural education and are why only 18% of students attend school. Meanwhile, the quality of education is significantly inferior in rural areas — lacking curricula and structure. Overall, urbanization in Africa tightens both the quality and accessibility of education.
The impact of education is multifold. According to an empirical study in Africa, when women receive higher levels of education, they have higher-paying job opportunities. Furthermore, girls’ health education has led to decreased infections from HIV/AIDS and lower infant deaths.
Sub-Saharan African countries which have urbanized have empowered women’s education. Gabon, a highly urbanized country, has free and compulsory education. Gabon also has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. This case study shows that as Gabon urbanized, education programs became more accessible and widespread. On the other hand, in Gabon’s rural areas, however, there is a culture of sexual abuse and a lack of teachers in schools.
Meanwhile, Guinea, a country with low urbanization rates, suffered from extreme gender divisions and disadvantaged women. The World Bank attributes this to a lack of female school enrollment. Overall, future sub-Saharan urbanization could increase gender equality.
Employment Opportunities and Diversity
Sub-Saharan urban areas typically offer women more job opportunities and economic independence. For instance, a rising tide of female entrepreneurs has dominated African urban areas. Women who migrated from rural to urban areas also saw increases in both income and empowerment.
Urban areas also exhibit a wider array of labor employment. Urban heterogeneity in Africa increases labor flexibility. Thus, urban women can become “market traders, miners, mechanics, managers and even Government Ministers” — unavailable careers in rural areas, according to Oxfam.
Due to urbanization, women can access similar economic professions to men. In rural communities, a career in agriculture was the dominant, if not the only, option.
When more women had employment in urban areas, this decreased stigmatization of female stereotypes. One significant example of this is how, in recent years, many women were elected and placed in top-decision-making political positions. This helps normalize women in places of power and contests the still reigning African patriarchy.
With the third highest urban African population, the Congo implemented reforms to reduce barriers to female economic opportunities. By providing greater economic prosperity, urbanization erodes many stereotypes about women and facilitates political reform.
Areas for Reform
Though sub-Saharan urbanization increases gender equality in many dimensions, there are still many problems to address. Around 62% of people live in sub-Saharan African slums. Such slums have scarce education and unsanitary health quality, which disproportionately impact women.
Governments and urbanizing countries should focus on passing economic reforms that eradicate these slums. Meanwhile, powerful countries should invest in urbanizing Africa to ensure that, eventually, people can leave the slums. On the education front, sub-Saharan governments should focus specifically on girls-only schools to decrease violence from male students and further empower women.
As sub-Saharan Africa continues to urbanize, its female population could finally have a long-deserved sense of equality. After all, bridging the gender gap starts with education and economic opportunity — two of the largest facets of urbanization.
– Ashwin Telang