What if your daughter couldn't learn reading or math because it is unsafe to walk to school? What if your neighborhood had no clean running water, but it was your duty to serve healthy meals to your aging in-laws? What if the simple act of crossing the street in time to transfer from one bus to another put you and your children at risk because of poor transit system design? For many women in cities around the world, these "what ifs" are too real.
Women have first-hand knowledge of the particular ways that poorly lit streets, crowded subway cars, and bad or nonexistant infrastructure effect their well-being. And now there's a growing body of research to back up what the proverbial grandmother could have told us. The growing pains of global urbanization are complicated by gender, according to Afaf Ibrahim Meleis, the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing and Professor of Nursing and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Meleis is co-editor of Women’s Health and the World’s Cities with Eugenie L. Birch and Susan M. Wachter. In her blog, Meleis points to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine demonstrating that women throughout the United States are more likely to walk–a great form of exercise–where they have access to safe sidewalks. Perhaps more surprising is research by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), reported in ScienceNow, on the link between location, obesity, and diabetes.
What can citizens, policy makers, and planners do to improve conditions for women and girls in the planet's growing cities and towns? Meleis says that there are five key actions that will empower women to take better care of themselves and their families, thus improving the health of the entire community.
1. Develop cities with women’s needs in mind. Women want to live in safe environments with better lighting, lower population density, and space that permit connections and allow them to provide the care that their roles demand to meet the needs of their children, friends, partners, elders, and other family members. This means providing access to resources for their children’s needs as well as elders’ needs. Improving conditions in or replacing slums, where many women newcomers to the city live, must be part of urban planning and development.
2. Focus attention on the sociocultural context and religious mores that drive, and often dictate, women’s movements, educational and working options, and housing needs. Developing urban areas in religiously conservative Muslim or Jewish communities or in socially strict societies requires different criteria and guidelines that determine the physical and social capitals and hence the space configurations.
3. Include women’s voices in planning decisions. Women should be key players in the policies and plans used for the development of communities. Involving women in policies related to urban planning and development ensures that their perspectives, needs, and voices are included in designing spaces with their needs in mind.
4. Develop a conceptual framework that provides a structure for systematically investigating gender and impact — or lack of it — on urban environments as well as on health and well-being. This would drive the design and translation of research programs into gender-sensitive urbanization development plans.
5. Understand that all of these empower women and give them voice.
Meleis shares more information on the connection between urban environments and women's health on her blog, Care to Change the World.