Crosscutting themes

A number of core themes cut across different elements of the African Cities conceptual framework, including climate change, finance and gender. Due to their centrality in the political economy of urban development in Africa, these issues will be subject to explicit investigation and analysis.

For International Women’s Day, we’re outlining how we’re approaching gender as a crosscutting theme in our research. You can also listen to our podcast interview with Rachel Tolhurst, co-lead of the gender crosscutting theme, below.

By Rachel Tolhurst, Sally Theobald, Beth Chitekwe-Biti, Jane Wairutu, Jackie Waithaka, Stanley Mburu, Lilian Otiso and Haja Wurie

Women living and working in African cities are diverse in many ways – including ethnicities, social class, (dis)abilities and sexualities – all of which influence their opportunities and challenges to thrive.

However, despite gender equality policies at national level, there are persistent gender-based disparities, inequalities and exclusions faced by many women, particularly among low-income urban residents. Indeed, while urbanisation may offer greater opportunities for women – for example, in employment, access to services and changes in social and household dynamics – this is not always the case.

Within gender and development discussions,  gender inequalities are generally understood as a result of patriarchy as a system of power, and intersecting with other systems of power – such as (neo-)colonialism, racism, ableism, ageism, and class systems – and therefore with other axes of (dis)advantage.

For instance, “middle class” women may be advantaged in many respects in comparison with “working class” men, such as in terms of access to a range of material and social resources, while still experiencing some disadvantages, such as discriminatory laws or lack of sexual and reproductive rights.

While decisionmakers might recognise these as longstanding issues, and implement measures to address ingrained inequalities, these are often translated through gender and societal norms and can thus result in unintended yet harmful consequences. As such, it is important to recognise that gender inequalities do not always favour all men, and there is also a growing recognition about how gender inequalities can negatively impact people who do not identify as male or female.

This complex interplay with other facets of society means that understanding how gender intersects with other key urban development domains will be central to our research into African cities.

Local women on a busy market street in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo credit: peeterv / iStock

Women and urbanisation

An increasing number of women are living in cities, with many heads of urban households set to be women in the near future. Migration into cities is also gendered, both in terms of what pushes households to leave their previous home, such as gender inequalities in rural areas – where a widow might be sent out of her matrimonial home following the death of her husband, for example – and what pulls them towards urban areas, including segmented employment opportunities in cities.

Often facing a double burden of labour, women and girls tend to carry out unpaid, “reproductive” work like caregiving at the household level, while also undertaking low-paid, “productive” work – as informal traders and food vendors, for instance. Although crucially important to sustaining the life of the city – especially in providing for the large numbers of the urban population who live in informal settlements and lack easy access to various services and amenities – this simultaneously perpetuates the constraints that women face in achieving wellbeing.

Plus, women and girls often have more limited access than men in the same social group to financial, physical, productive human and social capital that would enable them to navigate the potential opportunities of the city.

A woman pouring tea in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo credit: kertu_ee / iStock

An intersectional approach

Recognising the complexities inherent to gender relations, we will draw on intersectionality theory in our research, acknowledging and exploring the ways that gender interacts with other axes of disadvantage to influence an individual’s position in specific contexts.

Crucially, this perspective links action for gender equality with struggles for equality in other power systems. For example, collective action by low-income urban groups to pursue their “rights to the city” may be more effective as well as more equitable with attention to and recognition of women’s contributions and challenges. Initiatives focused on the rights of women and girls also need to incorporate the context-specific struggles and contributions of LGBTQ+ women and those living with disabilities.

Crosscutting gender analysis

Gender inequalities crosscut each dimension of the ACRC conceptual framework. Political settlements are gendered in a number of ways, including ideas, power bases and their implications for development outcomes.

Looking at cities of systems, gendered patterns of productive and reproductive labour shape human interaction with material systems and underpinning social systems, and thus inequities in the allocation of goods and services.

Moreover, gendered social relations are integral to the functioning of and uneven outcomes within urban development domains. For instance:

  • Structural transformation – Women tend to be concentrated in lower-quality, more precarious forms of paid work, as a result of needing to reconcile income-generating activities with reproductive work, along with gender discrimination in labour markets. They are also differentially impacted by transport access challenges, while sexual harassment and gender-based violence may also serve as barriers to women utilising transport services.
  • Neighbourhood and district economic development – The constraints placed on women and girls by reproductive labour burdens that influence their access to paid work consequently impact their potential contributions towards neighbourhood economies through “productive” work. Women and girls may also experience gender discrimination in labour markets and relatively poor access to credit. Although they play important roles in social organisation and collective action to improve neighbourhoods, women and girls often face gender-based challenges in these processes.
  • Land and connectivity – Women, youth and ethnic minorities are likely to be excluded from accessing land or land rights by both formal and informal land governance institutions. Unequal access to transport, digital and connective infrastructures may further constrain the ability of marginalised women and men to develop secure livelihoods.
  • Housing – Although there is wide recognition of housing as a critical physical and productive asset prioritised by women, their access to housing is often constrained by discrimination in housing markets, policies, law and practice. Where men are typically assumed to be “household heads”, land and housing titles tend to be registered in their names, meaning that women often lack legal rights to their homes. Laws might be implemented to address these challenges, as in Sierra Leone, but can perpetuate gender norms.
  • Informal settlements – Women often face a “triple burden” as they have to make contributions to community needs in addition to their personal and family needs. However, these community contributions can be empowering for women, with women-led local groups providing spaces to help them navigate patriarchal spaces inside and outside of the home.
  • Health, wellbeing and nutrition – Women and girls are often the primary “producers” of household health, through food preparation, washing and healthcare, along with productive work like food vending. In informal settlements they are usually the “breadwinners”, directly responsible for feeding the family and by extension the community. But food vendors do not necessarily know the nutritional properties of their products and young mothers are not always well-informed about healthy diets for their children. Furthermore, finances are a key constraint to accessing a healthy range of foods.
  • Safety and security – Participation in and victimisation by violence is clearly gendered, with women and girls along with LGBTQ+ and persons with disabilities particularly affected by intimate partner violence and sexual violence. Young girls and women are among the most vulnerable, facing early or child marriage and child labour. Processes, power and outcomes of informal justice are also shaped by gender norms and ideologies, such as those around household power and sexuality.
  • Youth and capability development – Both young women and men face intersectional vulnerabilities based on their gender and age. While young women face sexual violence, including abuse within education systems and experience multiple long-term consequences of early pregnancy, young men’s disenfranchisement is shaped by masculinities intersecting with other inequalities such as ethnicity. Lack of parental support, mentorship or positive role models can mean they are drawn into drug dependence or join criminal gangs. Young women and men are excluded from critical decision making processes, including the design of youth programmes, which has a negative ripple effect across other domains. There is a lack of gender-sensitive public spaces and platforms for young women and men to build their self-esteem and use their talents.

With our focus on identifying potential solutions to complex priority problems, we will be seeking to understand not only how gender intersects with these urban development domains, but how processes of transformation can be driven to address gender inequality in African cities.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Elizabeth Dessie Hello. Greetings from Nairobi. My name is Elizabeth Dessie. I am a postdoctoral fellow at the African Cities Research Consortium, and I have the pleasure of sitting down with Rachel Tolhurst today, the crosscutting gender theme lead at the African Cities Research Consortium. Thank you, Rachel, for taking the time to sit down with me today. 

Rachel Tolhurst It’s a pleasure. 

Elizabeth Dessie So maybe before we take a deep dive into gender and how it relates to the ACRC’s work and research plans, I thought maybe you’d like to share some of your current research, what you’re doing, and what led you to this role. 

Rachel Tolhurst Great. Thanks. So my background initially was in gender and development, but I’ve been working in health for more than 20 years now. But gender equity has always been a really important perspective through my work across different health issues and roles. So I am at the moment a part of a research consortium called ARISE, which is accountability for informal health equity, and part of our equity focus is obviously gender and intersectional gender analysis and action, and that’s very much sort of carrying through lessons from that, very much carrying through to my role within ACRC. Where as a gender lead I see my role really as trying to catalyse awareness of gender and sensitivity to gender power dynamics through the research processes and the analysis across all the different components of the conceptual framework, which is a big task but with a particular focus on the domains as well as some consideration of the city systems and the political settlements analysis. So what we’re really trying to do is learn some broad lessons about the gender dimensions of urban city reform processes across the domain and the city analyses. But you know, in the end the aim is to ensure that our conceptualisation of the priority complex problems that we’re focusing on is sufficiently sensitive to gender dynamics and aims for gender transformation. And so I’ve probably talked a little bit more about African Cities there than how I got here. I could say more about how I got here if you like, but we’ve got lots of things to talk about today. 

Elizabeth Dessie Yes. I mean, thank you for that introduction. And it’s so good to hear that gender has been identified as this crosscutting theme. And although not everyone lives and breathes gender, it’s good to see that it’s been identified as a priority. Since we find ourselves in Nairobi, I wonder if you’d like to share some of your past research findings, if there are any, that we can then sort of relate to some of the specific domains in relation to gender?

Rachel Tolhurst So my work with partners in Nairobi has been particularly about health and wellbeing in informal settlements. So that’s where I’m kind of drawing my understandings from. And I’m also one of the domain leads on the health, wellbeing and nutrition domain. So I guess I have that particular perspective and this is very much ongoing work rather than previous findings. And what I’ve learnt is really through working in partnership with people living in informal settlements, through federations of the urban poor and then the professional and academic partners supporting them. So it’s quite a lived experience perspective generally. And there’s not just the ARISE research, but there’s quite a lot of research been done in informal settlements, which really shows that the majority of people living there face a kind of double bind. So on the one hand, their livelihoods are informal and insecure and often their income relies on daily wage work. But on the other hand, living in informal settlements means really high daily and monthly costs like water, rent, energy, as well as food. And they’re really high unit costs. And that’s been talked about as the poverty penalty. So really what that means is that because of lack of access to basic services, per unit costs are actually higher for basic essentials for people living in informal settlements than for other people in the city who have access to things like piped water, toilets and electricity within the home. They’re able to financially purchase and store things in bulk like, you know, cooking fuel and food. And so these are common challenges that most people living in informal settlements face, but then women and girls face particular disadvantages. So first of all, they tend to be responsible for reproductive work as well as earning income, and that places huge time burdens on them, as well as limiting their income earning opportunities. And for a range of reasons, there are many female heads of households in informal settlements as well, such as Mukuru and Mathare, which are two of the the settlements that we’ve been working in with ARISE. And they have to do all the work of supporting the household financially as well as all the reproductive work. And I think I’ve already kind of explained why, but the second issue is that the reproductive burdens are heavier because accessing services takes a lot of time, so they have to collect water from standpipes that may not be close to their homes. They have to travel to markets to buy food, which are outside of the community some distance away, which takes time and traffic or walking, or they have to pay higher prices within the community. They often have to travel outside of the community for health care, although we saw in our visit to Mukuru informal settlement, we saw how the building and provision of health care services is starting to contribute and help there. The third thing is that women and girls commonly face threats of gender-based violence and abuse, and rates of intimate partner violence are high in informal settlements, probably as a result of intersections between the pressures of poverty and gender norms and relations, which clearly vary from place to place. And women and girls also face threats in public spaces, so including water collection points and toilets, particularly at night. But of course, boys and men also face challenges. So, for example, they may struggle to fulfil gendered expectations of men such as being able to provide financially for the family, and actually they also face violence from intimate partners as a result of that. And they are also very vulnerable to police harassment and exploitation and violence from criminal entities, just to give one set of examples. So most, if not all of these dynamics have been exacerbated during the Covid crisis, and they’re continuing in the post-Covid fallouts, including the protracted economic crises and the ways in which they are exacerbated for many women and girls are unfortunately persisting. 

Elizabeth Dessie Thank you. You’ve covered so many key points there. I guess maybe a couple of things that I can draw upon. It’s interesting to hear about this rising cost of living and what people face when they live in cities, since my research focuses on rural-urban migrants who often move to the city in search of a better life and are then faced with a completely different reality which departs from their expectations. And then within the context of Covid, to see that this is probably going to get much worse for those already in the city, let alone those who are planning on moving. And also this, when it comes to the experiences of women and girls specifically, there’s a dual responsibility of having to take care of household and and work at the same time. And then given the fact that often they occupy some of the least lucrative positions within the informal economy, it makes everything so much worse. But let me ask maybe for those who are listening. What makes cities distinctly different from rural areas when it comes to gender? This might seem like a very general question, but I think that not everyone necessarily sees or understands why urban spaces are are so distinctly gendered. 

Rachel Tolhurst So I think there are probably better answers than I’m going to give to this question. It’s quite a challenging one. One of the things that is talked about a lot in the urban context and clearly varies from place to place, is this idea that cities are becoming more feminised spaces. So historically that in migration to cities was in many cases particularly male-led. But increasing numbers of of women are migrating into cities and also, of course, growing up in cities. And we particularly see in a lot of areas higher levels of de jure female headed households. So female heads of households who are actually the head of household, they’re not they’re not kind of depending or having a relationship with the head of household who happens to be absent. And there’s been a lot of discussion, on the one hand, that’s been used quite a lot over over the decades, really as a as a shorthand for vulnerability. You know, that a female headed household and a female head of household must be, by definition, vulnerable. And there’s actually quite a large body of literature that suggests, well, no, it’s not that straightforward. And I suppose related to that and it’s not just about female heads of households, cities still do potentially offer new spaces and opportunities for women. You, I’m sure, know more about this me from the migration point of view, but certainly women migrating into cities may find that they have new employment opportunities. They may find that the kind of potentially more socially conservative strictures are relaxed a little bit, that the extended family structures are not present, which can lead to questions and difficulties around support, but also could offer opportunities. But of course they’re then also constrained by new things as well as all the issues that that I talked about. And, you know, the additional things, I suppose, are the fact that, you know, the labour market in cities is quite gender segregated. As you said, the opportunities for women are often in the more low earning sectors, there’s continued discrimination, as there is in rural areas in the labour market, and actually, there are also challenges to accessing assets and resources like land and housing in their own right, which actually can be intensified in cities because those resources are under pressure. And the other thing I think about cities which may not be unique, but which comes out very strongly from talking to movements of the urban poor, is how critical women’s participation and leadership is in developing those collectives and those struggles. And it’s absolutely essential to the work of the federations of the urban poor that are aligned with Slum and Shack Dwellers International, which doesn’t always translate into into benefits or into recognition, but is nonetheless a really key feature of it, very important to successful urban development that is inclusive and gender just. 

Elizabeth Dessie Thank you for that answer. Yeah, it’s quite a broad one. But at the same time you mentioned exactly what the literature reflects when it comes to these new spaces that women enter, especially in relation to rural-urban migrants, spaces within which many women find a degree of emancipation, but then within those constraints in cities can also face new types of vulnerabilities and inequality. So specifically in relation to the ACRC, I wonder if you can share your thoughts on the politics of gender, or let me rephrase that. Maybe the the political dimension of gender as a crosscutting theme. What are your thoughts on that in relation to the the framework and then also how gender is going to be integrated into the research plans as well? 

Rachel Tolhurst So it’s a really good question that I think we’re still trying to explore. So I think the first thing to say, which is no big surprise to anyone, is that what political settlements analyses show us is that elites are male dominated, so they reflect gendered access to formal political power, as well as those informal networks and patronage. But of course, women do wield power and they influence these dynamics. And one of the things that we were discussing yesterday was the ways that first ladies and other wives of officials are often very directly influential on their husbands and others, and also in their own right, you know, championing causes and campaigns. But of course, they may well act in ways that don’t actually promote the empowerment of poor, marginalised and disadvantaged women. So they may pursue issues much more in line with their class based interests, for example. But the lack of critical mass of women in both formal and informal governance structures and systems is relevant, and particularly the lack of a critical mass of women from a range of class and other backgrounds. I think what’s also relevant and perhaps interesting for this settlements analysis to explore more is the relative visibility or invisibility of women as a political constituency. So, you know, if they’re relatively invisible, that’s often going to limit the opportunities for more gender equitable policy or even gender sensitivity of policy. And so I think that’s something that we could explore more in the political settlements analysis, the ways in which particular groups of women as visible voting blocs or banks may be part of those accountability structures. And the other thing to say, of course, is that political settlements may have more explicit ideological commitments to gender equity or perhaps more commitments to more socially conservative ideals of women’s place in society. Or they may simply state things in an apparently gender neutral way whilst maintaining largely the systems of discrimination that are in place. But of course, this varies hugely across cities and I think it is quite a challenging thing to unpick, partly because using a sort of key informant approach and asking the male elites to comment on these questions is inevitably going to lead to a lot of silences in critical areas. 

Elizabeth Dessie Absolutely. Yes, I think it might be quite problematic since as was mentioned in some of the sessions yesterday and today, political settlements are inherently masculine. But when we think of it from a feminist perspective, it’s interesting that there seems to be quite a clear line between conceptualisations of power and the power configuration or balance that actually underpins a lot of the political settlements in cities. But you mentioned something really interesting in relation to gender neutrality. Do you find that maybe the fact that a lot of policy initiatives aimed at. Aimed at urban development since many of them are gender neutral. Do you think that’s why some cities miss the actual targets, that they don’t address the issue of women and especially young women and adolescent girls in cities? What are your thoughts on that? 

Rachel Tolhurst So this is another thing that we were discussing yesterday around thinking through gender sensitivity of policies. So on the one hand, specificity in policy is important, isn’t it? And particularly specificity in the analyses of the problem that underpin policy and therefore the way the sort of theory of change, the way that policies are envisaged to work, and certainly a lack of attention to gender there is likely to create responses that are in line with the status quo and that therefore are more likely to lead to the consolidation of privilege rather than rather than transformation. Of course, though, any policy is only as good as its implementation, and part of policy is implementation. And ultimately, part of what ensures policy implementation is coalitions and alliances that place pressure to enable implementation. So I think there’s still, perhaps in addition to, but perhaps sometimes despite gender neutral policy, there is still space and room and roles for advocacy, and for women’s movements and coalitions, progressive coalitions between different groups of women and men to enable policy to be interpreted in ways that can be gender transformative.

Elizabeth Dessie I guess that’s many of the hopes, I think, of the ACRC’s broader objectives are to introduce new approaches and new readings of issues that are either becoming worse or that have been in cities for a long time. And in relation to some of the other domains, or I say other because I specifically I’m situated within the youth and capabilities domain, what are your thoughts on some of the linkages or where do you see gender as particularly important? But just by posing that question, it feels odd because gender is an important factor in every single part of urban life. So, but let me ask you, so what are your thoughts on the domains in relation to gender? 

Rachel Tolhurst And those are getting more complex by the day as I learn more and more about the focus of the domains. One of the things that I was doing whilst listening yesterday to the domain leads presenting their key focus in turbo talks was I started trying to map the areas of the domains to some of the characterisations of the key dimensions of gender inequity within cities. And I was just using Sylvia Chant’s, what she calls the gender-slum interface, but which I think can be used more broadly for cities. And I was just trying to think about what are the linkages and she divides those dimensions into six. So the first one is gender disparities in human capital. And I think that links hugely to the youth and capacity domain in terms of the opportunities and constraints for young women and men to develop and progress in their lives and the ways that those are really gendered. So one example, which I think links to another domain that Chant talks about is reproductive and sexual health and rights, which are not an urban specific issue. But one of the things we talked about with regard to policy was about how youth policies and programmes are an example of apparently gender neutral programming, but they don’t often address the particular challenges faced by young women around sexual and gender based violence, adolescent pregnancy, the way that that can really disrupt education and therefore future life chances for young women, and the repressive norms and laws that are in place in many contexts, which then limit their opportunities for redress and support. So that’s just one example of an area where there can be gaps in those opportunities to develop human capital. So the fourth area that Sylvia Chant talks about is gaps in physical, natural and financial capital and assets, which really enable people either to benefit or to lose out from from these urban processes of contestation. And I think these are really key considerations in land and housing, as well as structural transformation and urban neighbourhood economic developments. So, for example, with regard to land, few people among the urban poor have tenure. But when we look at processes to try to address that, there may be gender discriminatory laws and policies which mean that it’s unlikely that women would be able to secure tenure in their own right and secure housing in their own right. So they may frustrate efforts to develop gender equitable reform. And similarly with regard to land use, we need flexible zoning policies that ensure that we recognise the fact that lots of women need to use their house as a basis for their livelihood, which may not be reflected in kind of existing standards and norms. I’ve already talked about unequal gender divisions of labour, which is her fifth category, and really needs to be considered in these in efforts to improve productivity and income generation from livelihoods. If we don’t think about the ways that women are actually constrained and held back in those processes, we will be challenged. And then the final dimension that she looks at is inequalities in space, mobility and connectivity, which I think really links to rights dimensions to shape experiences of safety and and security. So I’ve already talked about kind of experiences of violence, which obviously vary for women and men across time and space. But I think something else that might be worth mentioning is there’s quite a lot of documentation of women’s experiences, of sexual harassment on public transport, which is another consideration when thinking about connectivity and productivity and the constraints that women face. That’s a long answer. 

Elizabeth Dessie It’s not, thank you. And it’s interesting to hear how all the domains are complementary and connected in so many ways. But one thing that I’d like to just go back to that you mentioned is specifically in relation to what this will mean post-Covid as well is the fact that many women have to work from their home. I think that not specifically in sub-Saharan African cities, but more broadly in the global South, this is something that might even become the norm because of how the pandemic has changed the way people work. And in relation to gender and safety in cities, I think here the link between the youth and capability domain alongside safety and security really creates the perfect opportunity to explore how urban spaces are so deeply gendered that the same street can be experienced differently by a woman, by a man, but then also a different type of woman, right? Which connects perfectly to my next question, actually. But before I jump to that, I wanted to actually ask about systems, since that’s also one of the frameworks, one of the components of the ACRC’s conceptual approach. So your background is specifically in health, I wonder if you would like to refer to some specific examples, maybe from some of the ACRC’s focus cities in relation to where some of the systems really fail in providing access for women – since assets and access to resources are such a crucial component of women’s ability to transform their lives, whether it’s in cities or in rural areas. What other systems do you think are key when it comes to understanding gender, or is it all interconnected like it is with the domains, isn’t it? 

Rachel Tolhurst So I think it is really all interconnected. I think there are though there are different dynamics with regard to each system, right? So if you look at health, education, informal food systems, water provision, particularly at the lower levels, you know, women dominate as the providers, both formal and informal, whereas in some of the other systems, men tend to dominate as the providers say, you know, I guess, energy, sanitation, waste management, but particularly finance, law enforcement, you know, these are very male dominated spaces in terms of provision. And so that creates different dynamics. But of course, the management of the formal systems tends to be dominated by men. And I suppose access to the systems, to all of these systems required for the maintenance of a household really depends on women’s time and labour. And I’ve already made that point. But the other point I wanted to make really was the ways in which women and girls, but also other disadvantaged, marginalised groups really struggle to access finance. You know, finance being a particular issue for young, less educated women. And law and order. And I suppose we will come come to talk about intersectionality probably a bit more. But, you know, thinking particularly about about marginalised men such as queer men, men with disabilities, refugees and displaced people, you know, law and order and finance are equally very inaccessible to those men as well and are unlikely to be experienced as supportive. 

Elizabeth Dessie Maybe let’s just jump to that directly. So how would you connect an understanding of gender to intersectionality as an analytical lens? Is this something that goes hand in hand? Although in much of the research on urban geography or in feminist urban geography, it’s not necessarily divided, but then it’s sort of these two components or ways of thinking complement each other. And I think in more recent literature, it’s obvious that intersectionality is a crucial part of understanding gender and difference in cities. So what are your thoughts on that? 

Rachel Tolhurst So I see intersectional analyses and action is really critical to a feminist perspective. I think we are beyond the days of assuming that women share common identities and common interests. I also think, though, that a feminist approach is critical to an intersectional one and that intersectionality is something that was born out of feminism, and therefore I don’t see them as as hugely divisible. I am taking gender as an entry point here to an intersectional analysis. And what I mean by that really is that we need to try to understand how women’s and men’s daily lives are shaped by the opportunities and constraints they face as women and men, but also as informal settlement dwellers looking at their class position that people with a particular ethnicity or sexual orientation look at how able bodied we are, etc. But I also think that it’s really important that we remember that intersectionality began as an actor-oriented approach, and that’s what’s really important in African cities. We can get sidetracked by thinking that intersectionality is about ever more complex analyses. But really what it means is that as researchers, we need to think about our relative power and positionality throughout the research, and how we use that, to gather particular kinds of data, to ask particular kinds of questions and to analyse data in particular ways. And we’ve had conversations in this meeting about decolonisation and genuine involvement of communities throughout the process. And these are really important and actually critical to intersectional active approach as well. So really the question is how can we centre knowledge away from existing structures of power and towards those who usually have relatively few opportunities to influence knowledge? And so I think what intersectional gender analysis here adds is it asks us to think beyond those homogenous categories of African researchers or slum communities or even political elites and policymakers. And it also asks us to think about what are the potential alliances that we can build between and across positionality, so which groups of women and men share common interests in change, in which areas? And that for me is really critical to the political analysis, it’s critical to the domain and the systems analysis. What are the commonalities also that might be identified by women across other categories? And these questions, I think, are absolutely critical to our conversations about reform coalitions and about priority complex problems and how they might be realistically, politically addressed. And I’m using politically with a with a small P there as well to just think about power dynamics and process. 

Elizabeth Dessie Thank you for that. I mean, if I just reflect on my own experience as a PhD student, I came across intersectionality sort of by accident just in trying to understand gender and how it exists differently in cities. And I found that it was like you say, it’s something that emerged through understandings of gender and through feminist perspectives. And I think that in terms of trying to build better solutions and a more sustainable urban future throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it’s something that has to be integrated into all these solutions. Or ideally, that’s something that I would sort of like to dream of. But maybe my last question. Gender in the post-Covid city. So how do you. We can use intersectionality as a way of addressing that, I guess. So what are your thoughts on what it means to be a woman or a young girl in an African city, within a context of a post-Covid world? We’re not sure what or when the next pandemic will hit, or probably not a good idea to think about that. But maybe there’s a lot to learn also from what has been experienced in the past two years. So what are your thoughts on maybe a better way forward for cities also in relation to addressing the Sustainable Development Goals and the growing threat of climate change? What are your thoughts on that? 

Rachel Tolhurst Well, I wish I had a magic bullet for all of that. Yes, so I think the post-Covid world certainly for young women, young men, different groups of women and men in, say, the informal settlements where where I’m working and where I, you know, have some some understanding, I think Covid tended to be experienced as the latest in a long line of shocks and kind of a compounding layer on top of a long line of shocks. And that line of shocks has continued with cost of living crises, as you say, with the reality of climate crisis causing uncertainty and contributing to the cost of living crisis, contributing to food insecurity. There are lots of challenges, and I think that in addition to that, the learning that came from the Covid period, the Covid crisis, is also not new. You know, what we tended to learn were lessons that we really should have learnt a long time ago. So there are lessons around the importance of longstanding, trusting channels of communication within communities and between communities and different actors who needed to coordinate in the face of crisis. We learnt again about the importance of community solidarity in the ways that communities often pulled together, particularly where they had pre-existing social movements, collective organisation, they pulled together to try to protect the particularly vulnerable. I think there are probably also in those collectives sometimes categories of the “deserving” and the “undeserving” vulnerable. For example, it was fairly clear that sex workers were a group of women who really struggled through the pandemic, but would not be on most lists of the deserving vulnerable, either within communities or from governments. But nonetheless, communities tend to be a lot better than external governance actors at identifying and reaching and being accountable to people who are really in need of relief and support. And in fact, one of the experiences of Muungano in Nairobi was that the way that relief services were provided to the so-called vulnerable actually exacerbated community tensions, partly because of accountability issues about who was actually reached with, with relief, but also because of a sense that actually large numbers of the community were vulnerable. And again, young people, I think, particularly felt that very keenly, that, you know, for many young people living in informal settlements and other low income communities, struggles in the household meant that they’re forced to become fairly independent financially and yet with limited assets and social capital. All of which were sort of constrained even further during the pandemic and led to all sorts of vulnerabilities, and yet nobody recognised young, able bodied people as vulnerable. So, the lesson from all of that, I think is the development of more sustained social protection programming and support, but which accords with the moral economy of communities, which actually is based on a deeper understanding of vulnerability within communities that is not sort of intrinsic, that isn’t about sort of labelling certain people as vulnerable and other people as not vulnerable, but it’s understanding how in crises, certain kinds of vulnerabilities are created. So I suppose the short answer is that we already knew that there’s lots of capacity and resilience and collective power within communities. That’s been demonstrated yet again through the Covid crisis, it’s likely to be tested further in the immediate future, including in response to the climate crisis. But also, there’s huge potential to build on that, to support communities in linking to  governments, to other governance actors, and to do that in ways that are gender sensitive and that really consider how to improve opportunities for different groups of women, including the the apparently “undeserving” vulnerable. But that’s a very incomplete answer to the question. 

Elizabeth Dessie No, thank you. It’s so interesting that you mentioned sex workers since many young women are forced into this work due to a lack of alternative options. But then, as you say, they’re not necessarily pictured as the victims of, for example, the Covid crisis. But I guess one of the main concerns is, as you mentioned, the creation of new vulnerabilities and the fact that many existing vulnerabilities have become worse for women and for young girls and also for men and everyone else who experiences marginalisation in cities. Thank you for your time, Rachel Tolhurst, this has been a real privilege. I hope it’s not the last time and you have just listened to the ACRC podcast. Thank you very much. 

Rachel Tolhurst Thanks so much.

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Header photo credit: Syldavia / iStock. Women food vendors in Nairobi, Kenya.

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