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Towards Inclusive Cities: Women and Urban Planning in Myanmar

August 15, 2018

By Alison Chan

The world’s cities are growing at an unprecedented rate. The United Nations projects that 60 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030 due to accelerating migration and urbanization. In Myanmar, as in other rapidly urbanizing countries, urban growth is placing increasing pressure on municipalities and other governing bodies to deliver quality public services that are responsive to local needs. In this environment, effective urban planning is of the utmost importance, but urban planning that is not inclusive, that overlooks or ignores the life experiences and unique needs of certain demographic groups, will inevitably deny those groups equal access to the social, economic, and political benefits of urban life.

The Asia Foundation has conducted the first multi-city survey in Myanmar that specifically focuses on the well-being and life experiences of urban dwellers. The pilot City Life Survey polled 1,400 residents of the cities of Yangon, Taunggyi, and Hpa-an with the aim of analyzing various facets of urban life in Myanmar—from work, public transit, and taxation to green spaces. It provides preliminary data for municipal leaders to become better informed and more responsive to their constituents’ needs. With gender-disaggregated data and an equal representation of men and women respondents, the report offers new insight into the different urban life experiences of these two fundamental demographic groups.

Women and the city

According to the City Life Survey, urban women and men in Myanmar are equally educated, but women are almost twice as likely to be unemployed and not looking for a job. Women are more likely to be responsible for childcare and housework—19 percent of men reported doing no housework or childcare at all, compared to just 5 percent of women. Women who spend 11–15 hours per day on domestic labor outnumber men by a factor of more than four—14 percent to 3 percent. These data strongly suggest that women have a very different urban life experience than men.

Cities around the world historically have been planned predominantly by men. When women aren’t part of the planning process, the unique circumstances of women’s lives tend to be ignored, resulting in urban design that does not meet their needs. Some cities have taken note. Since the early 1990s, the city of Vienna, Austria, has made gender mainstreaming a central principle of the urban planning process. In 1993, the city held a competition, called Women-Work-City, for an apartment complex to be designed by and for women. Time-use surveys collected gender-disaggregated data which showed that women spent more time per day on household chores and childcare than men. Taking these previously overlooked time commitments into account, the apartment complex was designed to include an on-site kindergarten, a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, and grassy areas for parents and children to play. The complex was located close to public transit routes, making it easier for those with family responsibilities to run errands and go to work.

Vienna is an example of what gender-responsive urban planning can accomplish, and it illustrates the importance of understanding how urban spaces and services are used differently by different demographic groups. Myanmar is not Austria—local contexts must govern local solutions—but one of the most important things that urban planners in Myanmar can do is to collect data that can be broken down by gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability. With this information, planners and policymakers can make evidence-based decisions and engage in long-term city planning that is responsive to the diverse needs of their diverse communities.

One lesson of the City Life Survey is that government and civil society must empower women to engage more extensively in municipal affairs. When asked how much influence they think they have over decisions made by their municipality, women were almost twice as likely as men to respond, “I don’t know.” It is encouraging, on the other hand, that women and men generally share similar opinions on topics such as safety, quality of municipal services, municipal funding preferences, and more. The next City Life Survey, to be conducted in 2018, will expand the pool of respondents and locations to accurately capture wide-ranging experiences, but in the meantime, preliminary findings suggest there are no dramatic gaps in these particular areas of urban life.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 calls for cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” It is no accident that “inclusive” is at the forefront of this goal. Urban planners know how easy it is to design cities that impose structural barriers on underserved or underrepresented groups. The pilot City Life Survey represents a much-needed starting point for Myanmar policymakers and civil servants to understand and respond to the public’s needs in an evidence-based way. The 2018 City Life Survey, covering more people in more cities, will provide opportunities for better, more inclusive urban planning across Myanmar.

The City Life Survey, in English and Burmese, can be downloaded here.

Alison Chan is gender advisor for The Asia Foundation in Myanmar and a contributing writer to the City Life Survey. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Myanmar
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Civic Spaces


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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