Women, homes and communities
Women, who comprise more than half of humanity, have been largely excluded from participating fully in the decisions that shape the development of human settlements in cities, towns and villages. Housing programmes are much more effective when they take into account the different roles and needs of their targeted beneficiaries: men, women, boys and girls. Women play multiple roles as homemakers, caretakers of children and the elderly and breadwinners, working both within and outside the home. Their multiple roles create special requirements for living and working space as well as for basic services, including day care and transport.
However, the disadvantaged status of women remains largely invisible, in large part because of a widespread lack of supporting data. To reverse this state of affairs and to promote gender equality, 40,000 people, mostly women, representatives of Governments and of civil society, met in September 1995 in Beijing at the Fourth World Conference on Women. The Platform for Action that the Conference adopted is an agenda for womens empowerment and equal participation in decision-making. The objectives of the Platform for Action support the Habitat Agenda, which stresses that womens expertise, needs and perspectives should have a visible impact on housing and the development of settlements in both rural and urban areas.
Eradicate female poverty
The rise in female poverty, or the feminization of poverty, is compelling policy makers to focus more on women. Of the estimated 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, majority are women. Women are doubly disadvantaged by their need to earn a living while providing care for family members and running households. Nearly one third of households worldwide are now headed by women; in certain parts of Africa and Latin America, as many as 45 per cent are female-headed. Households headed by women tend to be poorer than male-headed households. Female-headed households predominate in the poorest neighbourhoods of cities and towns and on the most fragile and marginal lands in the countryside.
"We are seeing more and more that it is women who suffer the most and who have the worst shelter. If there was no other reason to focus our attention on them, that would be enough", says Wally NDow, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II).
The tide of migration that is sweeping many parts of the globe has also contributed to the increase in female-headed households. Many households are female-headed because the male household head has left in search of work. Other factors that are putting women at the helm of their families include widowhood, divorce, civil strife, population displacement because of natural or human-made disasters, and single motherhood. Here is just one example of a rural womans flight to the city:
Invest in housing
The quality of housing, especially in the cities of the developing countries, is deteriorating steadily. It is estimated that almost one quarter of humanity is inadequately housed and that as many as 100 million are homeless.
The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) (Habitat) estimates that at least 600 million people in the cities of developing countries live in shelters that are life- or health- threatening. Women and children are most affected by poor living conditions, since they spend more time at home. According to the World Health Organization, some 70 million women and children live in homes where smoke from cooking fires damages their health. Investing in shelter has been found to be a productive expense and not simply a drain on public spending. It has been found that, for every unit of currency spent on house construction, a unit of currency is returned to national income. Low-cost housing, because it is labour-intensive, creates jobs and enhances the income- earning power of tenants. Men and women earn more money when their living environment has been improved. But women need skills training in order to benefit from this.
* After food, housing is the largest item in a poor familys monthly spending: approximately 33 per cent of its budget worldwide, and as much as 45 to 50 per cent in Africa and Latin America.
Ensure a gender perspective
Housing schemes are more likely to succeed when they take into account the economic, social and cultural roles assigned to women and men and the different needs they have for space, privacy, security and basic services. Women who work for income at home, for example, require work and storage space. In cultures where they are confined indoors, they need room to combine domestic chores with child-care responsibilities, and they also need an area in which to socialize with other women.
Here is an example of gender insensitivity in housing design:
When women are involved in the decision-making process, they help policy makers identify priorities that are of genuine concern to women. Day-care facilities are a primary example of the kind of priority that is commonly neglected by housing and social service authorities. Low-income housing should always include communal spaces for child-minding or community-based child-care centres.
Invest in women
The returns from investing in women have been amply documented. Women spend a greater proportion of their earnings on the family and, when they work for income, their children enjoy better food, health and education.
Making credit available to low-income women is one of the most effective ways of raising their standard of living and increasing their opportunities for advancement. Most poor women do not have adequate resources to invest in housing. They may have part-time or irregular employment or they may lack the collateral and security demanded by most banks.
In some African countries, women, who account for more than 60 per cent of the agricultural labour force, receive less than 10 per cent of the credit allocated to small farmers and only 1 per cent of the total credit allocated to agriculture, although experience has shown that they are consistently a good credit risk. Lending schemes for women are successful when they offer flexible repayment schedules that accommodate fluctuations in the womens income. Bank managers and officers involved in small-loan programmes usually are trained to assist women borrowers with the application and repayment process.
* The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has pioneered a highly successful approach that makes small loans available to womens income-generating groups. These loans are consistently paid back on time. Lending to savings cooperatives and other womens groups is more effective than lending to individuals because a larger number of women benefit, while the group exerts pressure on its members to meet their repayment obligations.
For example, Bina was a textile worker in Madras, India, struggling to survive on subsistence wages. A local community-action programme encouraged her to help organize some of her co-workers into a womens cloth-making cooperative. The group was able to secure a small loan through the Working Womens Forum, a community-based organization. Funds were used initially for acquiring looms and dyeing equipment, but successive loans were used for upgrading and maintaining the womens living quarters.
Give ownership and inheritance rights
In addition to limited access to credit, women in many countries still do not have equal rights to land tenure and property ownership. Governments can help by guaranteeing security of tenure under the law and by enforcing the laws so that womens property rights are protected. Increased ownership of property and land would give more women the collateral they need to obtain credit. Through improved opportunities, women will have more choices available to them about where to live and what jobs to choose.
When inheritance rights are inadequately enforced, it is women who usually suffer, as shown in the following example:
Areas of special concern for legal reform include:
Womens access to power and decision-making
Legal reform, however, is not enough to guarantee poor women better jobs, health and housing. De facto discrimination persists even in countries where legal mechanisms are in place. What is missing, often, is awareness among women of their legal rights and of the opportunities that are available to them.
Since female-headed households are the poorest of the poor, they are particularly vulnerable to housing evictions and demolitions. Government authorities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs) and other interest groups should inform women about their rights to permanent, adequate and affordable housing.
Men and women working as policy makers and professionals in the settlements sector, including engineers, architects, housing planners and bankers, should be made aware of the different roles and needs of women and men and integrate this knowledge into their designs and programmes. Men and women professionals both require gender-awareness training, as shown in the following example:
There is also a widespread lack of gender-disaggregated data. In many countries, there are simply no data available on women and housing. UNCHS (Habitat) and other United Nations specialized agencies (particularly the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) are encouraging Governments to collect and disseminate data on the status and activities of women in their societies. UNCHS (Habitat) has specifically identified the strengthening of gender-disaggregated data in housing as a priority for effective housing planning and urban development strategies.
Local governments can improve and increase womens participation in housing by strengthening relations with (CBOs) and womens groups. When mobilized and made part of the decision-making process, CBOs and womens groups have been highly successful at securing improvements in basic services such as water, sewerage and waste disposal and recycling. However, this has meant an increased burden on women. In order to remedy such situations, local authorities need to be more supportive of community-based and womens efforts in tangible, practical ways.
* Habitat estimates that 50 per cent of the population in developing countries have no water within 200 metres of their dwellings and that 32 per cent lack safe drinking water. Since women are usually responsible for the family water and fuel supplies, they are highly motivated to assist in water development, alternative energy schemes and recycling programmes.
Networking among womens groups is another step essential for strengthening the position of women in the human settlements debate. When women are more organized and are well informed and trained, they are better able to demand their rights and seek corrective action. Networks provide women with opportunities to learn from the experiences of other women from different educational and social backgrounds. Support can come from such groups as the Habitat International Coalition Women and Shelter Network and the International Coalition on Women and Credit. Greater participation of women in political life, nationally and locally, is also crucial.
The quality of life in urban and rural areas could be substantially improved if the talents and energies of women were fully mobilized in the housing/urban development process. The most important steps needed to facilitate change are:
Habitat II will focus on ways and means of making the worlds cities, towns, villages and homes more liveable and sustainable. The Conference will provide an opportunity to learn from best practices applied in all parts of the world. Many of the best practices involve women as initiators, actors or partners of projects that resulted in concrete improvements in the quality of life and the living environment. For example:
In Sri Lanka, an initiative called the "Womens Bank" is aimed at securing access to credit and savings facilities for low-income women. This alternative financial institution has enhanced womens economic power to obtain housing loans and to care for their families. It has also improved womens organizational power and level of social acceptance.
In Rwanda, the Widows Cooperative of Save, Duhozanye, is reconstructing housing. Three hundred women are living and working together in non-traditional roles (construction) and non-traditional social structures (cooperatives). But the group is not just a building cooperative. It is a contribution to the countrys post-disaster reconstruction: the women are reweaving the social fabric. They revitalize life in rural areas and assist each other in grief and mourning.
In Norway, the Government developed a project that emphasizes the role of women in the municipal planning process. Six municipalities have participated in establishing due consideration for womens perspective in municipal plans. The project has been successful in changing attitudes and values of men and women.
In Kenya, dwindling supplies of biomass fuels caused by population growth, and commercial and agricultural expansion have prompted NGOs, individuals and government ministries to develop fuel-efficient stoves. Many womens groups are now engaged in the production and sale of such stoves. The benefits of using these stoves are less pollution in the kitchen, 10 per cent savings in womens labour for fuel collection, 10 per cent savings of the vegetation and increase in soil fertility.
In Colombia, in 1990, a local non-governmental organization and Womens World Banking began a credit programme targeted at women heads of household in Cali, the countrys third-largest city. In 1992, the programme was begun in five cities and in 1993 in a further 10. The programme, which is seen as an effective way of institutionalizing gender-aware policy in the context of decentralization, strongly influenced Colombias new constitution, which prescribes special support for women-headed households.
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