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Urban poverty and vulnerability in Zimbabwe: Looking beyond the urban/rural divide

© UNICEF 2014
Many other urban children have an even worse urban environment experience, since they live and work on the streets.

By Chrystelle Temah-Tsafack

When looking at average figures the reality of urban populations in Africa always seems to be more glimmering than that of rural populations. For many years, living in cities had meant that one is privileged and has access to a wide array of goods and services that was not readily available in rural areas: electricity, running water, public transport, schools, health facilities, etc.

The recent MICS data of Zimbabwe (MICS 2014) confirm this advantage of urban centers over rural centers for most indicators, for instance, secondary net attendance ratio is 79 for urban children, compared with 51.6 for rural children, while the figures are 92.7 and 74.2 respectively for institutional deliveries.  For children and youth an additional advantage of cities over villages is the presence of entertainment facilities such as cinemas, fast food, snacks, etc.

Unfortunately the reality of many children living in cities is not reflected in those average figures. The secondary net attendance ratio of 79 lumps together the odds for a child born and raised in Highfield, and those of as a child born and raised in Borrowdale, while both children are not likely the same opportunities to access secondary education and to enjoy the same educational facilities. Yet they live in the same city, only 20 km and half an hour drive away. Moreover average urban data also fails to include those without formal addresses or permanent homes and children on the streets.

A study undertaken by the Institute of Environmental Studies in collaboration with UNICEF in two high density suburbs of Harare in 2013 gave a picture of the lives of urban poor and of children living in the streets. Two out of three households were poor according to their consumption levels. Not only was the prevalence of poverty high but the depth and severity of poverty were also high and of concern, indicating that there would be need of substantial amounts of money to bring all the households out of poverty. While urban areas provide greater amenities, more opportunities for employment and better services, the urban economy is a cash economy and all commodities and services have to be paid for.

In addition to income or consumption poverty, urban poor also face compounding vulnerabilities that translate into deprivations in many dimensions, especially for children who bear the greatest brunt of these deprivations. Indeed child poverty is increasingly taking on an urban face. Most poor urban children are poor because they live in poor families. Deprivations faced by those children include: poor access and quality of health care, lack of decent water, sanitation and housing, poor quality of education, early employment with no skills and trivialization of violence.

However, many other urban children have an even worse urban environment experience, since they live and work on the streets. As a result they suffer multiple deprivations, are vulnerable, neglected and exposed to many risks and abuses. Moreover vending and begging are common activities for children on the streets. While their situation is heterogeneous, ranging from children who live with their families, to those who live completely on the street and have no family ties, their basic rights are not fulfilled, such as the rights to a shelter, dignity and to protection.

Addressing urban poverty requires a holistic, multi-sector and multi-stakeholder approach, involving poverty and vulnerability reduction, with a focus on Enhancing livelihoods, massive investment in urban infrastructure. More importantly it is important not only to lift urban communities and households out of poverty, but also to make them resilient. Resilience needs to be built using an equity and sustainable development agenda. It is only when urban poor will become resilient that they will be able to resist multiple shocks and to escape the poverty trap.

The 2012 census data indicated that 33% of the population was living in urban areas in 2012. UN-HABITAT projections estimate this figure at 50% in 2030.  So it is time now to regain the urban advantage by thinking about the cities we want to live in with our children. In this regard some of the issues that need to be addressed by urban planning include provision of adequate (in quantity and in quality) basic social services, sound transport system, safe water provision, solid waste management and sewage system, play grounds and green areas.

The author is a Social Policy Specialist at UNICEF Zimbabwe. For comments and contributions email:



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