[Column] Sinenhlanhla Zulu: Gender-smart infrastructure must be delivered at scale
10-05-2023 11:25:01 | by: Marlene Mutimawase | hits: 4833 | Tags:

As a woman, walking down a street in Johannesburg can be unsafe after the light fades. In many African cities, where unstable electricity supply is commonplace, such as Lagos or Accra, most roads are unlit at night. Walking home alone, and even traveling by taxi alone, can be risky for women. 

Africa’s development finance community has set its sights on plugging the annual infrastructure investment gap, which is estimated by the African Development Bank to be more than $108bn. Developers, engineers and operators across the continent must adopt a more responsive approach to infrastructure design that meets the needs of society, particularly women and girls. 

Transport safety and security are key factors determining women’s mobility choices. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, around 59% of women have experienced violence or harassment on public transport, the World Bank estimates. Meanwhile, nearly half of female commuters in Nairobi, Kenya, feel most unsafe using public transport at night, according to a UN survey.

But this is a global problem. Where women’s safety is not guaranteed on public transport, we must alter our mobility patterns, having to either drive or avoid using buses, trams or trains.

Prioritising investment in better lighting, more robust security systems and policing on public transport could therefore facilitate women’s participation in the labour market. Encouraging female ridership, and enabling women and girls to access services without fear would be greatly beneficial for economic development.

The problem lies in the fact most infrastructure is designed, implemented or run by men, oftentimes without consideration of gender. A common, albeit mistaken assumption, is that women automatically benefit from infrastructure projects in the same way as men. For instance, in many parts of Côte d’Ivoire and Zambia, there is a lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, such as safe, private, sex-segregated toilets. This has led some girls to drop out of school in these countries, according to research by the UN's Environment Programme. 

Evidence shows that adequate facilities are key. In a Plan International survey undertaken in 2014 with 7000 youth respondents across four regions, one in four girls said they never feel comfortable using school latrines, labelling them “health hazards and crime zones”, and noting the fear that “boys will walk in on them”.

The problem is in part a reflection of male dominance in the water and sanitation sector. A World Bank study of 64 water and sanitation services in 28 countries worldwide found that just 18% of their workers were women, and less than a quarter of engineers and managers were female. 

In developing countries, planning across industries often lacks an inclusive evidence base. Most planning and implementation processes for general public services, including transport, housing and community amenities, are not backed by gender-disaggregated data. 

The benefits of creating investment solutions made by women for women are definitive and multi-faceted both for businesses and communities at large. Promoting gender parity in decision-making positions will result in projects that are more inclusive of female-specific viewpoints, priorities, lifestyles, mobility and use patterns. 

Advancing gender parity at all levels, including political and senior-management representation in businesses, could add $316bn to Africa’s gross domestic product by 2025, according to McKinsey. Given that financially independent women typically reinvest up to 90% of their income in their families’ nutrition, education and health, according to Bank of America research, this could reduce poverty levels and help build more sustainable, resilient communities. 

The Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG) and the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund are developing solutions to encourage the investment community to improve their understanding of the intersectional dynamics of gender and infrastructure, and to bring more projects to the market that better serve women’s needs. This includes a $12.7m green bond investment made by PIDG in 2019, which was used to construct green student housing in Nairobi with a particular focus on women’s safety and security.

Implementing gender-smart approaches to infrastructure design and urban planning is even more critical as Africa’s population is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050. Urban areas will absorb two-thirds of this growth, and African cities will welcome an additional 950 million inhabitants.

The risks of urbanisation are far more significant for women and girls if cities exacerbate our health and safety risks instead of recognising our requirements. By ensuring infrastructure is geared to protect human rights and safety, women and girls can achieve economic and social mobility.

Sinenhlanhla Zulu is an investment specialist at the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund, a PIDG company focused on mobilising public and private debt capital to deliver infrastructure across sub-Saharan Africa.