Ties between urban poverty and rural life

Urban poverty in the Global South does not occur in a vacuum: many of the urban poor are recent migrants from rural areas who have come to the city in search of a better life. With them, they bring traditional practices, as we see in the cases of Cali and Mumbai. Once they arrive, informal support networks made up of other recent migrants help them to settle in and learn the basics of urban survival, as seen in Jakarta. As is clear in the case of Nairobi, migrants continue to cultivate ties with rural areas. Finally, the example from São Paulo shows that food supply and natural resources are two important factors that connect rural and urban areas.

Read on to see reports from Mumbai, Jakarta, Nairobi, São Paulo, and Cali, and then join the discussion below.

São Paulo
Carlin Carr

How rural traditions influence the development of urban interventions: a case of women's reproductive health

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager


Many rural traditions and customs carry over into urban life for India's migrant communities. Local festivals, artisanal expertise, and languages turn Mumbai's slums into vibrantly diverse amalgamations of India's villages. The city also offers greater freedom from the strict caste structures of rural areas, and the role and freedoms of women in Mumbai's slums often change as well. In fact, the autonomy that women gain as they move from rural to urban India provides insights into their healthcare choices, especially when it comes to reproductive care.

Urban Indian women, like all Mumbaikers, are flooded with images — on television, radio, and billboards — that flash ideas for new ways of being, acting, and doing. These influencers open up ideas and avenues not necessarily discussed or advertised in villages. Urban women, even in slums, have access to doctors and clinics and information about their health that they otherwise may not have been exposed to outside of the city. Despite this, many pregnant women in slums still opt for home deliveries rather than deliveries conducted by skilled attendants. Initiatives working on maternal and neonatal care have been tracing the roots of why some women take advantage of better services while others continue to take the risk of giving birth at home with almost no follow-up care for the infant.

Research has found that a number of factors contribute to maternal care choices, but one important one is how "urbanized" the woman may be. A report, "Village in the City: Autonomy and Maternal Health-seeking among Slum Populations of Mumbai," says that women whose previous residence was in a village had less autonomy in their new city environment, and therefore were less likely to avail themselves of skilled professional clinics or hospitals for giving birth. While many young women in the report felt they had more autonomy — a major indicator of what care a woman will choose — than their rural counterparts, the new mothers, especially Muslim women, had not gained enough autonomy in their urban household structure to push for better health services for her delivery.

Surprisingly, the study found that autonomy was not necessary linked with education nor with work. In fact, fewer women in India's slums work than in rural India. Rather, exposure to mass media, particularly television, was an important factor in seeking out antenatal and child birth care. In addition, the family structure was also an indicator. For example, when the husband was the head of household, women had more autonomy and influence, but when he was not (for example, an in-law may be), young mothers had less autonomy and were less likely to give birth outside the home.

As women migrate to urban India, village customs follow. As more interventions work to improve maternal and neonatal care in urban India, it is important to recognize that as a woman's sense of autonomy grows with her urban life, so too does her ability to make better decisions for herself and family. Without women fighting for their own health care, few families will opt for the expense of maternal care clinics if the rural practice of giving birth at home has been so ingrained in their family life.

Photo credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development



widya anggraini's picture

Jorge, what happen in Cali really interest me. Indonesian has similar term for Minga called gotong-royong and has been applied widely within communities. Maybe the difference is that the scope of this mutual work is usually small and benefits only few households. For instance, before our Independence Day, usually communities hold gotong royong to clean the drain, cutting grass or fix some street lamps. But it seldom become as huge as in Cali where government and local NGOs are involved in and are able to repair and decorate parks. Maybe you could inform me more whether Minga is also applied in all Colombia or just in Cali? And how it works, such as who usually initiate minga and during the works, who responsible to coordinate and asking for funding to government?

widya anggraini

Jorge Bela's picture

Hi Widya, glad to hear you found the article interesting! Minga is still strong in Colombia, although in small communities. It is used in addition to manocambiada, which refers to a practice in which working hours are exchanged by individuals: a carpenter fixes some furniture in neighbor’s house, and the neighbor later repays the hour helping with the farm. These traditional forms of cooperation can accomplish significant results: in Nuqui, a small location in the Pacific region of Chocó, nothing less than the airport was built largely through minga. The Cali experience is unique in the sense that combines the local government, NGOs and the community. In Bogotá, for example, I have seen mingas organized by NGOs with considerable success.

Reading this weeks articles it caught my attention that in Jakarta older immigrants form a network to help new arrivals, and that in Nairobi people left in the rural areas (grandparents, other relatives) help those that move into the city by assisting with their children, etc., while in turn they receive remittances from the city. I have observed both these practices in Colombia.

The Mumbai case is more disheartening, as it shows that problematic rural practices can also be imported into the city, although I hope it is only for the short term.

Hi Jorge, I really liked learning about Minga al Parque in Cali. I was wondering if you know how was the interaction between the government and the local communities that participated in the initiative. Were there any particular highlights and/or challenges in this joint work?

Also, you mention that some resources from the city government were allocated to the project and I was wondering what these resources were used for, as most of the activities were based on voluntary work. Do you have some additional insights?

Jorge Bela's picture

Hi Cata,

As far as I can tell, the initiative went so smoothly and successfully that was later replicated by NGOs to organize minga al río, this time without participation of authorities.

Regarding the funds, I am not sure if all the budgeted money was spent. Even if the actual work is done by volunteers, there is also need to buy some supplies, such as paint, plants, fences, even water for a swimming pool! There is also the need to advertise the initiative. On Monday I will try to obtain a detailed breakdown of how the allocated budget was ultimately spent. In the article I forgot to mention that 50 million COP equals about 25.000US$. If all was spent, it comes to less than 4.000 per park.

In any case the involvement of the community in the upkeep of their parks is a value in itself, regardless of whether minga brings substantial savings or not.

Katy Fentress's picture

Carlin I was interested to read about how women's autonomy with regards to maternal and neo-natal care improves when they come to the city.

I wonder, to what extent do recent migrants ever travel back to their rural places of origin? Is there a level at which women's increased autonomy is being translated back to the rural areas or are these still entirely isolated locations and as such impervious to such modern developments?

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

Carlin Carr's picture

Katy, similar to the situation you outline in Nairobi, most urban migrants maintain strong ties with their villages. In fact, a friend has been working on a study of the housing upgrades in Dharavi among four or five different communities, and the strength of the connection with the village was a big indicator in how little or much the urban migrants had invested in their city life vs rural. In other words, those communities who had been in Dharavi for generations with few ties to the village (their extended families had mostly moved to the cities, too) had better housing situations, because their incomes were being put solely into this one place. In another community, the dhobis (clothes washers), they had quite bad living conditions in their area of Dharavi, despite being there for generations, because their money was mostly being sent to the village. There, in the countryside, their homes were quite big, but lack of livelihood opportunity keeps them in the city. I think most of the migrants hope to go back to the village one day, though — as your questions ask — they are worlds away. The villages seem to remain quite conservative, for women especially.

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