By Prabha Khosla
To realise the SDGs, women’s rights to land, housing, and tenure in cities have to be ensured, argues Prabha Khosla. To do so, we need to challenge both patriarchal and neoliberal structures.
The Double Disadvantage of Being Female in Informal Settlements
The majority of people who live in the slums and informal settlements of a city experience extreme poverty and marginalisation. Lacking security of land, housing, and tenure, they live in communities with limited access to essential services and infrastructure such as drinking water and proper sanitation. Systems providing solid waste management, drainage, and electricity are inadequate or non-existent.
For women living in slums, this deprivation of basic services is compounded further by gender-based discrimination. In many societies, tenure rights and house ownership—also representing power and wealth—are male domains. Many women are excluded from urban land, housing, and security of tenure—not only by poverty, but also by socio-cultural norms that exclude women from such securities and from joint decision-making in households. This exclusion from these aspects can lead to exclusion from economic opportunities and independent livelihoods. Additionally, a lack of sexual and reproductive health services, childcare services, and educational facilities for children violate the human rights of women and girls.
Access to land, housing, and—individual or collective—tenure is the first step in offering women a way out of insecurity and poverty. It is the foundation from which women can support themselves and their children and start to create better lives for themselves and their families. Increasingly, women slum dwellers and women in informal settlements are challenging restrictive gender norms and their entailing legal conditions.
This is true, for example, for many African cities, where women-headed households in slums are on the rise. In some slums, they constitute up to 25 per cent of all households. These women independently support themselves and their families. Having faced various kinds of discrimination, they have become innovators in creating better homes and livelihoods for themselves and their children.
Women have developed a wide variety of economic models aimed at their financial independence. These models often take the organisational form of collectives, which offer shared security of tenure and housing to their members, thereby improving women’s opportunities to get better public services and generate income. The women from the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia are a good example of this.
Another example is the model of the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme (PSUP) of UN-Habitat. The PSUP combines an integrated approach to city-wide slum upgrading and prevention by supporting national and local governments with new participatory governance models and options for new financing mechanisms. These enable slum dwellers to be active agents of change for new, community-led upgradings that also involve security of land and tenure.
What Needs To Be Done
These new economic models are critical in terms of the difference they make in the lives of women and their children. However, much more needs to be done by governments in order to reduce poverty and to make sure no women is left behind—regardless of the discrimination she experiences. Governments need to recognise the multiple and intersecting inequalities low-income women face. We need a multi-pronged strategy to create security of property and tenure for low-income women and their families.
• Reclaim Urban Planning
Many governments have enacted progressive land policies and ensured equal rights in this regard. The Ethiopian government introduced a large-scale programme in some parts of the country that allows land to be held jointly by both husband and wife. In Brazil, the programme Minha Casa Minha Vida focuses on enabling security of tenure and housing for low-income women and their children. Despite such efforts, much remains to be done in order to address the multiple problems rooted in insecure property rights of women. One critical aspect is the need for governments to dedicate urban planning to human rights instead of maximum profit.
Neoliberal policies in countries and cities around the world are legitimising the eviction of slum dwellers, resulting in the consolidation of land in the hands of a few. Over the last three to four decades, land developers and speculators have increasingly come to determine urban planning and land use regulations, minimising the role of governments in these processes. This is the case both in the Global North and South.
Many cities designate areas to the exclusive use of the powerful and wealthy. Such areas include business parks, “smart cities”, gated residential communities and leisure centres. They spatially divide cities into zones of privilege and zones of disadvantage, undermining poor women’s right to land, housing, and physical and economic security. This is because these exclusive zones were created by evicting slum dwellers from land in the city and re-locating them to peri-urban areas. Such evictions hit women especially hard, as this usually means that they lose their jobs in the informal economy—such as domestic work, cleaning, and looking after children—as they cannot afford to travel long distances to work. Furthermore, evictions disrupt women’s community networks of income generation, mutual support, and well-being as well as their child-minding arrangements.
National and local governments need to challenge, restrict, and control corporate land grabbing in cities in order to re-dedicate urban planning to human rights. They need to claim back their power as governments, and develop and enforce strict laws on land usage against corporations and private developers. They need to manage land and land usage in the interest of the entire population, and especially of low-income women and men. National governments need to empower local governments to regulate corporate land grabbing.
• Focus on Women
Governments need to develop gender-responsive policies that address the needs of low-income urban residents with a particular focus on low-income urban women; a generic focus on low-income urban residents is not sufficient to enable low-income women’s land and property rights.
Legal processes such as registration and titling of land, property, and housing should be conducted with both wife and husband as lawful owners. In cases of domestic violence or other forms of gender-based violence against women and children, the legal title should go to the women.
Along with a reform of existing land and housing policies and the respective legal frameworks, it is critical to reform family law: It is imperative that the women of a family have the same rights to inherit land as the men. In case of a divorce, land should be divided equally between husband and wife.
Customary and religious laws need to be reformed to align with women’s rights and the principle of non-discrimination. Low-income women need guaranteed access to affordable justice in order to exercise their rights.
• Monitor the Process
Disaggregated data collection, monitoring, and evaluation processes should accompany the implementation of land policy, legal frameworks, and the corresponding programmes and projects. It is critical that we measure and quantify the extent to which new policies and legal frameworks are indeed achieving their objectives or if they need to be revised.
Gender-responsive budgeting provides both national and local governments with a set of tools for the systematic review of how women do or do not benefit from public sector expenditures. Gender-responsive budgets should be institutionalised for land, property, and housing policies and programmes.
• Gender-Sensitive Slum Upgrading
All slum upgrading initiatives have to be gender-sensitive. They need to include components such as leadership skills development, access to low-interest loans, and capacity development for women that equips them with skills relevant to slum upgrading. They should enable the empowerment of women and enhance their roles as decision makers in slum upgrading, housing, economic development, as well as in provision, operation, and maintenance of services. Especially young women should be enabled as agents of change. Women need access to affordable land or shared tenure arrangements. These need to be close to their work and home, with access to essential services and infrastructure.
As countries around the world begin implementing Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, let us remember that a key target among them is to reduce women’s poverty and enable women’s rights and gender equality: Target 5.a. states, “Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws”.