The statistic gets trotted out at just about every urbanism conference: for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s people live in cities. By 2050, 70 percent of the population will live in urban areas. Those numbers have been repeated so often they've become cliché, a lazy way of saying that "cities" are "important."
But those statistics mask a deeper and more complicated reality, which is this: the distinction between urban and rural, between cities and suburbs and countryside, is disappearing as populations boom and traditional societal structures dissolve. The borders between different ways of living are blurring. And that means “urbanization” represents something different from what it has in the past.
A provocative essay published the other day on Future Capetown, written by Beloved Chiweshe, flips the urbanization meme on its head. Chiweshe, the former secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, talks about what he calls “the ruralization of urban areas.” And he specifically points out the hardship that this "ruralization" causes for women.
What Chiweshe is talking about are the conditions encountered by many people who live, not in the orderly cities of the developed world, but in the places where much of that often-cited population boom is taking place – the informal settlements of Africa, Asia, and South America. In Zimbabwe, Chiweshe sees the problems and limitations of rural life migrating to the rapidly spreading urbanized regions where people are moving for economic opportunity.
Those problems, Chiweshe writes, take a disproportionate toll on women. Chief among the burdens that women shoulder on the outskirts of Harare, for instance, are the constant search for clean water, reliable electricity, and fuel:
There are very few things as nauseating as the sight of a group of women in the suburbs of Harare delicately balancing all sorts of containers on their heads in the early hours of the morning in search for water, the leafier suburbs included.
Even more disturbing is when you come across a group of women scavenging for firewood from peri-urban areas and what are supposed to be green space and recreational parks in the suburbs. What is clear is that there is a convergence between urban and rural life. The convergence is not bad, it’s normal, what is worrying is that instead of rural life being urbanised the opposite is true.
Traditional gender roles have made the trip from the country to the city as well. Chiweshe writes that women and girls in these "ruralized" urban areas do a disproportionate amount of the work that results from not having access to adequate infrastructure.
And the threat of sexual violence is ever-present as these women move about the streets and alleys of the world's cities. Often, writes Chiweshe, men socialize over beer and football while the women labor:
One of the days I offered a lift to a girl who was in search of water in Budiriro, she told me she could not go home without water no matter what. It was already getting dark. She had just returned from school. She was staying with her step mother who was at home and her dad who she said came back late from the beer hall because he hated it when there was no electricity at home. It got me thinking.
You make the life of a young girl very difficult if you ask her to find water or firewood at all costs. In fact you make girls and women more vulnerable to abuse when you put them in such conditions. What are the expectations of men with regards to the socio-economic challenges that are posed by the ruralisation of urban areas?
The issues raised by Chiweshe are just as relevant in other rapidly urbanizing parts of the world, such as India, where the task of fetching water also routinely exposes girls and women to the threat of sexual violence.
Chiweshe proposes that men take more responsibility for the daily survival tasks that have migrated along with population to the world’s booming cities. That’s an enormous cultural shift, but he writes that it will be necessary. "I call upon the men out there who still believe the ruralisation of urban areas can be solved by women only to think twice," writes Chiweshe. "No, it requires a collective effort."