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Life in slums: the worst form of urban poverty and inequality

According to the UN Slum Almanac around one billion people live in slums worldwide. In other words, one in every eight men, women and children currently lives in slums and that number is growing.

CBS News states “number could double by 2030 if developed nations don’t reverse course and start giving the issue serious attention, according to a United Nations report.

The UN Human Settlements Programme’s report, 2003, is the first-ever to assess. Its main concern is the developing nations in Asia and Africa because the migration from rural areas to cities in Europe and the Americas has largely played out.”

The figures are stark: “Almost half the world’s urban population lives in slums. Asia has the largest number of slum dwellers overall, with 554 million, while sub-Saharan Africa has the largest percentage of its urban population living in slums — about 71%.”

Worst slums in the world

“By 2030, it’s estimated that it 1 in 4 people on the planet will live in a slum or other informal settlement,” claimed Habitat for Humanity, a US non-governmental and nonprofit organisation.

Following the considered the world’s largest and worst slums in the world:

Khayelitsha in Cape Town (South Africa): 400,000

Kibera, Kangemi, Kawangware, Mathare in Nairobi (Kenya): 700,000

Dharavi in Mumbai (India): 1,000,000

Neza (Mexico): 1,200,000

Orangi Town, Karachi (Pakistan): 2,400,000

Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (200,000)

Life conditions in slums

According to the UN Slum Almanac checklist, “the impact of living in these areas is life-threatening.” Slums are located “in swamps, industry run-off areas, dumping areas, flood-prone zones and even on the sides of steep slopes.” Reports Borjen Magazine in an article (How Many People Live in Slums Around the World?).

Health, water and sanitation

People in these areas are exposed to widespread of diseases “With low access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities, communicable diseases run rampant, infecting adults and even worse, the much more vulnerable children,” reported Borjan Magazine, “the poorest 20% in urban areas have a life expectancy of around 55 years. In Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, there are only 1,000 public toilets. The population of this area is in the hundreds of thousands. As a result, open defecation areas are still very common. Sewer lines empty right in front of people’s houses, in their yards.”

“We couldn’t even walk down the road, the sewage was everywhere,” a slum resident from Khayelitsha slum of Cape Town told Habitat for Humanity.

Lee Riley, professor and head of the Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology Division at the University of California, Berkeley, claimed: “overcrowding in slums also engenders a host of opportunities for transmission of diseases, including TB, respiratory diseases, pharyngitis, meningitis, scabies, super-infections of the skin, acute glomerulonephritis, rheumatic heart disease, and Zika virus infection and its congenital consequences.”

Alex Ezeh, professor of Global Health in the Department of Community Health and Prevention at the Dornsife School of Public Health, and colleagues describe in a research paper (Health in slums: understanding the unseen) that “the shared physical and social environment in slums creates a unique combination of health threats distinct to those found in non-slum urban or rural areas. Inadequate sanitation and water supply predispose to diarrheal diseases, reservoirs, and vectors for infectious diseases such as dengue and leishmaniasis flourish, and the physical environment leaves the population vulnerable to fire, extreme weather, and violence. Overcrowding contributes to a high prevalence of tuberculosis and food insecurity.”


One of the major issues is education facilities which are next to nothing in the slums. According to Habitat for HumanityIn Kibera slum, Nairobi, only a quarter of students attend formal schools.

“Security-wise we provide for these kids. For 90% of them, this is their meal, what they eat from here. They regard this school as part of their home, or even shelter.”

Education facilities for girls are even rarer as most girls are not allowed by parents to attend school, especially after the primary.

Shaffer, HB, an American herpetologist at the University of California in his research paper Education of Slum Children, a document by the CQ Researcher reported that “slum children often seem immune to standard instructional programs, and that a relatively large proportion of them quit school early and become misfits and unemployable.

Early efforts to increase the less fortunate child’s capacity to learn took the form chiefly of remedial classes of shifting the child from academic to shop or manual training work and of providing extra services.”

Problems of learning

Shaffer, HB, also describe the learning problems of children and their reason. “The manner of life …the way …they have been treated by adults, the kind of speech heard in the home, and the values, aspirations and personal habits of their elders are the main influences affecting the child’s educability. Poverty, poor nutrition, housing and sanitation, neglect of illness and physical handicaps, insufficient supervision of children of working mothers, the perpetual fear of destitution hardly prepare the child of poverty for the disciplined instruction of the classroom. Because the poor family tends to move frequently…the slum child changes school in midterm more often than other children.

Some city schools have as many as 50 children either entering or leaving in a single day, and some of their pupils have switched schools as often as five to seven times a year…(families are) culturally deprived, because their parents are poorly educated and have no appreciation of the values of education. These children have done, heard, and seen too little that would prepare them for the expectations of the school, though they may have experienced much that fits them for the rough world of the streets large percentage of neglected and abused children and children in fatherless families are found in slum populations.”

The disturbed parent-child relationships also create learning hindrances.

Therefore, the governments need specially trained teachers and school learning programs to motivate slum children towards learning.


Shaffer, H. B highlights another aspect of slum youth. “Rising tensions and high rates of crime and of street disorders in slum districts are believed to stem in large measure from frustrations and hostilities prevalent among the poorly educated youths who live there and who are not fitted for regular employment. Participation of teenagers and young hoodlums in the riots in slum sections of New York City, Jersey City, Philadelphia and other cities (showed) that the jobless, out-of-school youth of city slums would become social dynamite [and] a serious threat to our free society” if measures were not taken to give them proper education.

Gang violence, drug trafficking are common in Urban slums besides break-in, robbery, mugging, sexual harassment etc.

However, more victims are found in slums than criminals sometimes. Adam Parsons, editor at Share The World’s resources, writes in his article (The seven myths of ‘slums’ – myth 3: slums are places of crime, violence and social degradation) The reality is that poor person living in informal settlements are the foremost victims of crime and violence, as opposed to the middle-classes living in wealthier neighbourhoods with higher levels of protection.”


“In facing the challenge of slums, urban development policies should more vigorously address the issue of livelihoods of slum dwellers and urban poverty in general, thus going beyond traditional approaches that have tended to concentrate on improvement of housing, infrastructure, and physical environmental conditions.” (United Nations Human Settlements Programs, Global Report on Human Settlements, 2003)

The creation of new jobs can in reality improve the living conditions of slum-dwellers.

Jobs and employment opportunities are scarce, of course, whatever work is available is low paying and without any suitable labour rights. There is no occupational security.

Most of the people find some work in Industries nearby but the working conditions are highly risky and even injurious to health.

People from rural areas move to urban areas for some job opportunities. In the famous slum of Dharavi, Mumbai, village children even under 10 get training for their new work, collecting and recycling waste.

With their small business, slum dwellers generate an annual income of about $1 billion in the Dharavi slum alone. However, this figure is raised because of the huge population of the slum, not because of the rise in the per capita income. So the conditions of people remain the same year in and year out.


The situation of Food insecurity is at its peak in sums. Of course with low income and without much outside support people are always facing hunger and thirst. Malnutrition is common.

Katie Cashman, Executive Director at No More Stolen Childhoods, writes for Development and Cooperation (Urban food insecurity) writes “In Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, about 20 % of residents frequently go a whole day and night without food… As the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reckoned, 1.3 million rural Kenyans and up to 4 million urban Kenyans were food insecure in 2008.”

Fight for the land rights

Slum-dwellers also have the insecurity of land ownership.

“A problem that many people in these conditions face is “insecurity of tenure.” In layman’s terms, these people are highly susceptible to sudden and unlawful eviction by the government. Though their homes are certainly of poor quality, a home is much better than no home,” reports Borjen Magazine in an article (How Many People Live in Slums Around the World?)

Slum upgrading, collective effort

Around the world different international and local bodies are trying to improve the condition of slums around the globe. However, many self-help efforts are also notable.

In Orangi Town, Karachi, slum dwellers have taken control of their sanitation. A slum resident explains how they “all got together to lay this sewer line on a self-help basis. There’s no filth on the roads, that’s a huge improvement,” as reported by Habitat for Humanity.

“The Participatory Slum Upgrading Program (PSUP) has looked to saving slum-dwellers from unlawful eviction through legislative means, and has so far gotten 35 countries on board,” reports Borjen Magazine in an article (How Many People Live in Slums Around the World?).

World Resource Institute, in an article “To Fix City Slums, Don’t Just Knock Them Down: Involve Residents in Upgrading Efforts” highlights the effort of upgrading programs in an Indonesian slum. “The Kampung Improvement Projects have been good for Surabaya. Residents have benefited from improved access to basic services, structurally sound houses and shops, a healthy local environment, and a sense of pride and ownership over their neighbourhoods.”

The streets are paved, and children have schools to attend. Now, this slum shows another picture. Although all the problems are not solved the basics have been provided. And the community is involved for the betterment.

São Paulo, in Brazil, with different slum areas, is another example of taking steps towards upgrading. Sandra Regina, the community’s association president in one of the slums, says: “There is clean, treated water, while before it was all sewage.”

“The main need now is jobs — indeed across São Paulo, income generation is seen as the main challenge to a successful urbanization process. And there are some conscious job-creation efforts, with citizen groups playing a key role.” (Improving Slums: Stories from Sao Paulo)

Organisations help in land tenure security, health and sanitation, employment opportunities and condition, education by engaging the residents from the slums. However, much need to be done for the betterment as the countries with large slum population are already underdeveloped.

And upgrading and integration of slum population completely are impossible.

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