Why is support for gender equality mainly growing in urban areas?

Guest post from the LSE’s Alice Evans from the LSE Alice Evans, LSE

Across the world, support for gender equality is rising. More girls are going to school. Women are increasingly being recognised and supported in historically male-dominated domains, such as employment and politics. Growing numbers of men are sharing unpaid care work. In short, young women are ‘beginning to envision a future similar to young men: education, independence, greater financial autonomy, and shared responsibility for their family’ – comments Boudet et al (2013: 37), drawing on a comparative study of twenty countries commissioned by the World Bank.

However, such egalitarian social change is largely restricted to urban areas. ‘In rural areas, [men] appear less willing to accept women’s changing roles and aspirations… [O]ne participant to a women’s focus group in in semi-rural South Africa, maintained that ‘We do not have any job opportunities, our husbands assault us, and most of the time the tribal court favors the man. So really nothing has changed”’ (Boudet et al, 2013: 140). These observations are consistent with quantitative data from Afrobarometer, World Values Surveys and Demographic and Health Surveys.

Why is growing support for gender equality largely limited to urban areas?

Zambia urbanTo investigate this topic, I set off for Zambia, where I interviewed rural-urban migrants as well as long-term rural and urban residents. My ethnographic research was based in two locations: Kitwe (the largest city on the Zambian Copperbelt and Chinsanka (a remote village on the banks of the Luapula river). Both areas speak Bemba, in which I am fluent.

My life histories, group discussions and observations point to the ‘disruptive’ tendencies of the urban.

First, urban heterogeneity increases the likelihood of exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour. Urban girls see women working: as market traders, miners, mechanics, managers and even Government Ministers. Seeing a critical mass of women performing socially valued roles seems to – slowly and incrementally – erode gender stereotypes, relating to competence and status.  It broadens their aspirations and hardens their resolve to progress in education.

Urban heterogeneity also increases the likelihood of exposure to men sharing care work. This is (very) slowly and incrementally undermining presumptions about cultural expectations, enabling a positive feedback loop. As Chilando (a 41 year old tomato trader, rural-urban migrant) comments:

‘They are very different, the village and town. It is women who do all the work at the village. Right here in town men cook and help with washing up, but that can’t possibly happen in the village! He [my husband] helps me here.  They see women going to the market… we become tired; they come so we can help each other… [But] the rules in the village are very tough, they’ll be laughing at you. Here he’s found his friends helping their wives. Things are very different in the village’ [translated].

In remote rural Chinsanka, men are revered as providers. It is they who venture out, for several weeks at a time, into the crocodile-invested Luapula river. Traversing great distances in small wooden paddle boats. Hauling in the nets at night. This is ‘men’s work’. And families are dependent upon it. Women ‘just sit’. In this context, ‘there’s little else girls see and admire besides getting married and having children’, commented Rebecca (a married 40 year old fish trader). Furthermore, with limited exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour, her parents will likely stereotype men as breadwinners and thus educate their sons instead. This perpetuates gender status beliefs – that men are more suited and entitled to positions of leadership – as reflected in the Afrobarometer data below:

Evans chart 1

A second difference between urban and rural areas is money. Reflecting a global phenomenon, Zambian women’s unpaid work is often unrecognised and unappreciated. Cooking, cleaning, sweeping, fetching water, weeding, planting, harvesting (for subsistence agriculture) are commonly referred to as ‘just sitting’ (translated). However, earning an income (more common in urban areas) provides a tangible sign of women’s contributions. This disrupts perceptions of men as breadwinners.

Third, greater proximity to government services (such as clinics and police) allows urban women to disrupt biology: control their fertility and secure external support against gender-based violence. Government services not only enable access, they are also perceived as legitimising women’s control of their bodies. This shifts presumptions about cultural expectations. Chinsanka, meanwhile, has no clinic, no police station. Teenage pregnancy rates and fertility are high, increasing dependency on male breadwinners.

Zambia ruralWhat does this tell us about the causes of egalitarian social change? It indicates the importance of exposure to a critical mass of women demonstrating their equal competence in socially valued domains, earning incomes and controlling their bodies. Moreover, it underscores the significance of cultural expectations. Paid work is not enough to empower an individual woman. Even if a rural woman earns an income, her husband is three times more likely to control that money – as compared with urban counterparts in Zambia. Place matters.

Anyway, that’s my emerging theory so far. Very keen to hear alternative perspectives on the causes of rural-urban differences. Further, what might amplify support for gender equality in remote rural areas?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


6 Responses to “Why is support for gender equality mainly growing in urban areas?”
  1. Silke

    Thanks for this interesting post! I found the policy / socia services dimension noteworthy – access to services (in this case health services) allows women more control over their bodies, as you observe.
    What is the role of other services, and interaction with government institutions? What kind of interaction do people in the rural sample have, and what role does gender play?

  2. Alice

    Could you be a bit more specific? Do you mean what role are services playing in disrupting gender inequalities on urban areas but not rural areas? Well, health and police are the two main ones, I observed. What else are you thinking of, Silke?

  3. Amy Parker

    Hi Alice. This is a really interesting emerging theory and puts very nicely into words many of my experiences. I can’t offer up an urban-rural comparison, but I can certainly add to your rural observations. We have a wide-scale education and community outreach programme on the extremely remote Plateau region in South Kivu, eastern DRC. This region is the size of Belgium, yet only has two very poor access roads, no mobile networks, electricity, banks and the State is all but absent. It has also experienced decades of conflict and internal and external displacement. It is a highly patriarchal society, with women being ‘owned’ by their husbands and in-laws. We have been working there now since 2006/7 and, whilst change has taken place, it is slow, especially with regards to gender equality. Lack of role models is constantly put forward as a reason – there are very few women who have finished school or assume leadership roles. Women take on field work and domestic work, the latter which is not valued at all. A man would be ridiculed if he took up a broom, and whilst boys are now taking up more domestic chores, anecdotal evidence is that as soon as they become the man of the house, they will not sweep.
    Since 2007, we have seen change, but this is slow. Working through local and religious leaders has been essential (especially in the fight against early marriage). Prolonged work with parents, and especially mothers, on the importance of sharing out household tasks equally has meant girls are now performing better at school and slowing changing the misconception that they are not as intelligent as their brothers. VSLAs, although we’re only 13 months in, seem to have the potential to be a real game-changer, finally allowing women access to household decision-making. But we’re looking at generational change in my view. I have lots more information, reports etc if you’re interested!!!

  4. Alice Evans

    Delighted you like the piece, Amy. So the next question is how to catalyse social change in rural areas? Why do you think VSLAs are a game changer? Is there anything else (like media access or governments building clinics, employing women) that might amplify exposure to role models?

  5. Molly Bosch

    Thank you so much for this piece! I just returned from Zambia last Friday. I was staying in Zambezi for a month and working on a Health Team with some fellow Nursing and Pre-med students, and we traveled to rural villages to promote education on water safety, hygiene, and first aid practice. At one of the rural communities we visited called Dipalada, I spoke with a group of women about the differences of gender roles. Many of the women are suffering from arthritis from early mornings of hiking to fields to collect food, then preparing the food and taking care of their families. The men were seen just sitting around and socializing. I asked a woman about why they were not helping, and she explained to me that culturally, their role is to earn wages and that is how they receive their status. While the men earn the wages, the women do all of the behind-the-scenes work. These women ran the show. I was prepared to meet women who were saddened by years of inferiority to men; however, these were some of the strongest and happiest women I have ever met. Their strength comes from their lack of status and recognition, simply because they have no association with finances within the family structure. I am fascinated by the topic of gendered roles in rural settings in Zambia. The women I encountered were the most empowering and strong individuals I have ever met. However, it was perplexing to see the “hands off” approach that men had towards their families, since their roles were primarily defined by their financial contribution to their communities. I could go on all day about the questions and curiosities I have on this topic. I just wanted to thank you so much for this well-written post. It has shed a great deal of light on my research and has helped pave the way to some potential answers to questions that are swarming in my head after visiting that wonderfully puzzling nation.

  6. Great Post, I really liked the way, Writer has put his all struggle to prove the Gender Equality is rapidly growing and it is only visible vividly in Urban Areas. I think it is because of Literarcy Rate.