The city empowering young women
bing potrait

Girls and young women face many challenges in rural settings where they have fewer resources, assets, and income opportunities than men. Some of these factors have pushed girls and young women like Shimu to migrate to urban areas. They find that urban life offers better economic opportunities; it may help them get away from restrictive gender norms and traditional practices, and gain a sense of autonomy and control over their lives.

The urban-rural divide starts early in life. One of the most visible disparities is in girls’ access to education. In developing countries, school attendance for rural girls between the ages of 10 to 14 is 18.4 per cent lower than for urban girls of the same age group. The gap is 37.5 per cent for girls ages 15 to 19.(1) Though there is also a rural-urban disparity in access to education among boys, it is less pronounced. The highest rural-urban inequalities in girls’ access to schooling are found in the Middle East and in Western and Central Africa, with respectively 54.6 and 46.9 per cent lower attendance rates for 15-19-year old girls.(2) In rural settings, many girls start work at a young age to help support their families and as a result education for them is often cut short.(3)

Child marriage is still prevalent in many rural areas. As Shimu found, child marriage jeopardizes girls’ opportunities. It disrupts their education, violates their human rights, and can have severe consequences for their health – especially their sexual and reproductive health.

In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia about half of all rural girls are married by age 18, about twice the rate of their urban counterparts.(4) There may be wider disparities depending on age, and in some regions and countries. For instance a survey in the rural Amhara region in Ethiopia has found that as many as half the girls were married before their 15th birthday, usually to men considerably older. The vast majority of these girls did not know their husbands beforehand. They were introduced to sex by force, often
before their first menstruation.(5)

Girls often flee to urban areas to escape their fate. A parallel survey in slum areas of Addis Ababa found that one in every four female adolescent migrants aged 10-19 came to the city to escape early marriage.(6) This study also found girls had other reasons to migrate to the city, including the search for education and work. More often than not, these girls end up trapped in the poverty net of urban slums. Even under poverty conditions, many girls like Shimu make their own money, which gives them a degree of autonomy they wouldn’t have in the village.

A study in Bangladesh of adolescent girls who had migrated from rural to urban areas for work has shown that 31 per cent were married by age 18, compared to 71 per cent of their peers who stayed behind.(7) There are several reasons why young women in urban areas marry later. The most important are education and participation in the labour force, which give them a better social position. Young women with autonomy
over their earnings have more freedom to decide when and whom they marry, and over the timing, number and spacing of their children.

Nevertheless, girls and young women in urban areas still face many challenges because of their gender. In many developing cities, young women are more likely to be unemployed than young men, evidence of gender discrimination in access to education and job opportunities.(8) More young women than men are forced by lack of education and training into the informal sector and subsistence activities.(9) Many adolescent
girls come to see their bodies as one of their few marketable assets. Impoverished girls on their own or managing HIV-affected families are frequently under pressure to exchange sex for gifts, money, or shelter.

Biruh Tesfa, or Bright Future, is a programme for poor urban girls at risk of exploitation and abuse in Addis Ababa, developed by the Ethiopian Ministry of Youth and Sport and the Addis Ababa Youth and Sport Commission, with technical assistance from the Population Council and support from DFID, the United Nations Foundation and UNFPA. Implemented in a slum area of Addis Ababa, the project targets out-of school girls aged 10 to 19, most of whom are migrants, living away from parents and family members, and unlikely to be reached by other programmes. Biruh Tesfa provides girls a safe space to build support networks with other girls and women and promotes functional literacy, life
skills, livelihoods skills, and reproductive health education.(10) The programme has been well received by the community with currently more than 600 girls participating, half of whom had never had any schooling before.(11)

Education is crucial to changing the attitudes and behaviours which perpetuate gender inequalities. Education, both formal and informal, as well as livelihoods and mentoring support can make fundamental contributions to improving girls’ and women’s health, well-being and economic opportunities. Interventions for adolescent girls should also address sexual and reproductive health and use a skills approach to equip young people to apply knowledge in practice. Action is required to raise awareness amongst parents
and communities of their daughters’ needs and rights, underscoring the importance of delayed marriage and keeping young girls in school.