The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 4, 2016

Without improved public service delivery, women in developing countries can’t take advantage of economic opportunity

February 4, 2016

An estimated 1.5 billion people live on less than $1 per day—the majority of whom are women. The “the feminization of poverty,” the worldwide gap between women and men trapped in poverty, has grown during the past decade. As developing countries continue to urbanize, uneven access to public services prevents women from taking full advantage of the newly available economic opportunities. Despite women’s improved overall labor force participation, they often end up with lower paying, precarious jobs—often in the informal economy.

In Pakistan for instance, three-quarters of women engaged in non-agriculture jobs work in the informal economy without laws or public policies to protect them. That’s an estimated 8.5 million domestic workers. Governments typically clamp down on informal establishments by shutting them down or simply ignore their existence. The lack of appropriate legal or regulatory systems further increases women’s vulnerability to exploitation through low wages or lack of employment protections. Women are seldom viewed as productive economic agents as they are outside the tax net.

What’s hindering women’s access to public services?

In a recently completed report for Oxfam’s Asia Urban Program, we focused on home-based and domestic workers in four major Pakistani cities to explore intervention opportunities. We found that a lack of access to healthcare, education, energy and public transport above all else adversely impacted women’s economic security. Women lacked access to public transport, mainly due to fear of violent street crime and abuse, directly hindering their ability to access jobs and lowering their monthly incomes. Perhaps as an outcome, a disproportionate share of women’s commutes in cities are walking trips.  

But social protection and economic productivity depend on service provision, so how can women in the informal economy more effectively advocate for improved access to services and other collective interests?

A successful intervention in Nigeria

In Lagos, Nigeria, under Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, higher tax revenues were utilized for improvements in public service delivery, offering an inspiring model. Working in unison with informal sector associations, the Lagos State government created a unique balance between political, local economic and social interests that resulted in significant performance improvements.

To develop a similar system in Pakistan, the emerging home-based and domestic worker rights movement should be utilized to create stronger informal worker associations. By working with major private industries, the associations could enable formal integration of workers into global value chains. This would create a much larger tax base and improve revenue generation, which, as in Lagos, could be channeled for improving public infrastructure, law enforcement, and access to basic services. The potential success of this system would create even greater buy-in from women and communities, facilitating more participatory forms of urban governance.

Following a decade-long gap, the recent reinstatement of  local governments is a great opportunity to introduce these much needed reforms. It is time the benefits to economic growth and social protection of informal workers are seen by local political leaders as complementary policy objectives.

A Pakistani young woman arranges bricks as she works in a brick factory at the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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