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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 women’s empowerment and equal participation in decision-making. The objectives of the Platform for Action support the Habitat Agenda, which stresses that women’s expertise, needs and perspectives should have a visible impact on housing and the development of settlements in both rural and urban areas.

For example:
  • The design of housing and the provision of basic services should take into account the different perspectives and requirements of women and men;
  • Government authorities at all levels responsible for shelter planning should integrate gender perspectives as part of legislation, public policies and housing projects;
  • Credit institutions and lending programmes should be accessible to women;
  • Training and extension services in both urban and rural areas should be available to women, including young women, who lack access to traditional sources of collateral;
  • Women should be actively and practically encouraged to enter shelter-related professions - architecture, engineering, construction, management and planning - which are still largely male-dominated;
  • Emergency shelter programmes for refugees and the victims of natural and human-made catastrophes should make provision for women’s safety and health needs;
  • Laws governing divorce, inheritance and property rights should not place women at a disadvantage, but protect women’s equal access to resources and ownership.
Policy makers and planners need to confront the many obstacles that prevent women from participating fully in human settlements development. When opportunities for decision-making have been offered to women, the benefits are seen in improved shelter, education, health care and income. Even more importantly, women become empowered. Policy makers and planners need to increase women’s access to such resources and opportunities as land, property, credit, training and technology, so that women can overcome their disadvantaged status. Women’s advocacy groups need support in acquiring more effective lobbying skills and maintaining strong networking with other women’s organizations.

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 N’Dow, 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 woman’s flight to the city: Imena left her subsistence farm in rural Kenya in search of a better life in Nairobi. Her husband, a migrant labourer, had abandoned the family four years earlier, leaving her to fend for her three small children and an infirm aunt. The family’s meagre savings were consumed almost upon arrival in the capital, and she and her dependants sought shelter at a squatter settlement on the outskirts of town. A community self-help scheme enabled her and other squatters to build more permanent shelter. The project spawned the formation of a women’s cooperative that would provide Imena with a livelihood which enabled her to cover the cost of her children’s school fees. The fact remains that migrant women are engaged mostly in low- status employment with little job security. They are, at best, dependent on relatives and employers for food and housing; at worst, they are squatters or renters in informal settlements. Migration of one or more adult family members is sometimes the only means available to poor families for securing a livelihood, no matter how marginal. But the social costs are high: long absences from spouses lead to breakdowns in marriages and often to homelessness, as well as to heavy burdens on elderly women left to care for grandchildren.

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 family’s 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: Fatima lived with her extended family in a small apartment in a Cairo slum with no running water. Her husband was a street vendor and Fatima helped supplement the family’s income by working as a domestic servant whenever she was able to find someone to watch her children. The family became eligible for public housing and moved to an even smaller apartment in another part of the city. Although the apartment had running water, there were no communal areas for child-care and socializing with other women and no afternoon transport to other parts of the city, which forced Fatima to stop working. The family had relocated, but with no corresponding improvement in their livingstandards. Too often women are excluded when housing plans are drawn up:
  • In a community project in El Salvador, women refused to use lavatories because their feet were exposed at the bottom of the doors, offending their notion of privacy. A similar situation occurred at a housing project in Bangladesh, where toilet facilities were used by women only before sunrise and after sunset, when they were assured of some privacy. Toilet facilities should ensure privacy.
  • In response to poor planning in Montreal, Canada, a community development programme called "Women and the City" promoted adequate lighting, visibility and safety-conscious designs in public places and parking lots. Entrances, bus and train stops and access roads to buildings should be safe and adequately lit to ensure the security of women.
"Women are not equitably involved in deciding on the design of the home, the choice of the area to live in and the planning and maintenance of our neighbourhoods, villages and towns. This makes their struggle even more difficult", says Catalina Hinchey Trujillo, who heads the Women in Human Settlements Development Programme at UNCHS (Habitat).

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 women’s 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 women’s income-generating groups. These loans are consistently paid back on time. Lending to savings cooperatives and other women’s 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 women’s cloth-making cooperative. The group was able to secure a small loan through the Working Women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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: Wanda’s husband, a footballer, died in a plane crash in Gabon in 1993. Until his sudden death, the couple had lived happily with their three children in a middle-class residential district of Lusaka, Zambia. Her mother-in-law insisted on moving in, along with several other relatives, to help Wanda during her mourning and with funeral arrangements. A local court appointed a male relative administrator of the family property. In three short weeks, the in-laws were able to take control of the family house, car and bank account. It was only several months later, after the intervention of a non-governmental organization, that Wanda was able to obtain a job and some interim assistance for herself and her children. Protecting the interests of women should be a central focus of urban and agrarian reform and housing legislation. Guidelines for effective lawmaking are contained in the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which calls on Governments to "undertake legislative and administrative reforms to give women full and equal access to economic resources, including the right to inheritance and to ownership of land and other property, credit, natural resources and appropriate technologies". Another reference document is the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which recommends ways of ensuring that women enjoy equal legal rights.

Areas of special concern for legal reform include:
  • Inheritance laws that prevent widows and female family members from getting access to land and property;
  • Property laws that are biased against married women, especially in cases of divorce or separation;
  • Barriers, such as zoning laws that prohibit economic activities and food growing in residential areas, that pose serious problems for women who are employed in the home or who supplement family income or food with home-grown produce;
  • Laws that discriminate against the small-scale "informal sector" and hit women the hardest when they are active in home-based cottage industries.
Enacting and enforcing equitable laws and increasing women’s access to land and property will enable women to overcome their disadvantaged status, take part in decision-making and create the kind of lives for their families that they have tried to achieve for many generations.

Women’s 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: Josefina grew up in Manila, the Philippines, and was the only one of eight brothers and sisters to receive a university degree. She decided to specialize in urban planning, a field which attracted few women. As a student, and later as a member of the city’s housing authority, Josefina developed strategies for low- cost housing, with no regard, however, for their impact on women. After attending a regional seminar on women and housing, Josefina began to consider the needs of users, both male and female, and helped set up a data bank of gender-disaggregated statistics for the housing authority. Women should be encouraged and helped to enter professions that traditionally have been inaccessible to them. The lack of female managers and technicians involved in the housing and construction sector has exacerbated the problem of "gender-blind" housing. A recent survey of architects in Canada, for example, revealed that only 10 per cent of the country’s architects were women, and that only one in 10 of the female architects indicated that they even considered the needs of women users in their housing designs.

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.

Activate participation

Local governments can improve and increase women’s participation in housing by strengthening relations with (CBOs) and women’s groups. When mobilized and made part of the decision-making process, CBOs and women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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:
  • Providing policy makers and housing professionals with gender-awareness training;
  • Improving women’s access to credit, and to security of land and property;
  • Setting up training and extension programmes for women, especially in the construction and related fields;
  • Increasing women’s educational opportunities, from literacy campaigns to scholarships in the non-traditional sciences and housing-related fields (architecture, engineering, planning);
  • Collecting, analyzing and disseminating gender-disaggregated data on women, men and housing;
  • Ensuring equal participation of women at all levels of housing and urban development, policy planning and practice;
As Ms. Trujillo of Habitat puts it: "Committed by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, we anticipate the creation of countries, cities, towns and villages where all of us - women, men girls and boys - are conscious of our differences, and, respecting those differences, can feel actively engaged in the building of our common future."

Best practices

Habitat II will focus on ways and means of making the world’s 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 Vienna, a competition process was started for female architects to develop structural, practical and design-oriented proposals for "women-friendly" housing blocks. The proposed features include, for instance, well-lighted staircases to avoid danger and easily accessible storage and laundry facilities. The winning design has been incorporated into construction plans.

In Sri Lanka, an initiative called the "Women’s Bank" is aimed at securing access to credit and savings facilities for low-income women. This alternative financial institution has enhanced women’s economic power to obtain housing loans and to care for their families. It has also improved women’s 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 country’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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 Women’s World Banking began a credit programme targeted at women heads of household in Cali, the country’s 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 Colombia’s new constitution, which prescribes special support for women-headed households.
Another example for involving women in the planning and development of cities is the European Charter for Women in the City. The aim of the Charter is to establish a European network highlighting gender issues in the urban environment. The Charter has been sponsored by the Unit on Equal Opportunities of the Commission of the European Union.

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