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The role of women in international housing

Posted by egehl on August 22, 2012

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of traveling to the other side of the world for the first time.  I’ve always heard that being in Asia was quite different and a unique experience, and I certainly found that to be true when I ventured to the Philippines.  The purpose of the trip was to join my colleagues from Habitat for Humanity to take part in an international development course to learn about informal housing, urbanization, and what to do about the housing crisis facing cities worldwide.  I am new to international housing as my work has always focused on US related matters and policies, therefore I found this chance be exposed to the housing issues and challenges facing populations in need abroad an exciting opportunity.

The Philippines is known for having a large poor population, especially overcrowded Manila which is the most densely populated city in the world, with almost half of its citizens considered to be urban poor.  The city is grappling with how to properly house its neediest citizens, and what to do about the existing substandard housing that so many live in.  NGO’s like Habitat are trying to address this challenge and come up with ways to deal with the lack of adequate housing in a growing city.  It’s overwhelming when you think about it, but there are incremental ways to tackle this problem and one of those is by empowering women.

The full involvement of women is the best guarantee that any housing project will be a success.

Women must play a full role in all planning and implementation of improving living conditions.  They are the ones who already have strong social networks within a community and are often the primary caretakers of the community’s homes and households.  They have the most to gain from a good community housing project, and the most of to lose if their housing conditions are bad or unsafe.

Current statutory and customary laws in many countries limit women’s access to land and other types of property.  In fact, women own less than 15 percent of land worldwide, which is why a new land tenure law in Bolivia is notable.  The new law state’s that property rights should be registered in favor of both spouses or partners, detailing their full name.

Until now only a man’s name was on land rights documentation and if he had a spouse or partner it would not say the actual name of the spouse.  This caused confusion around land rights, and if the man had a mistress she could claim rights to the property.  This change appears to be such a small development, yet so consequential for Bolivian women because a full name on documentation is the first step to ensuring their land rights.

Involving women in housing around the globe, whether it’s around land rights or improving their living conditions, is key to creating healthier, safer, and better housing for families.  When improving informal housing settlements, often women have the greatest ability to mobilize support or opposition to any intervention in their settlement so their full involvement and participation is instrumental to any housing project.  Involving women in housing, like the example in Bolivia, also builds capacities and confidence while it enhances a woman’s status and helps undermine entrenched patterns of inequality.  When women play a large role in their housing situation, it ensures that the design of the home and community matches their family’s needs, and it enhances their status in the community as key actors in its long-term development.

There have been policies to address women’s needs in poor countries such as the Global Resources for Women to Thrive, or GROWTH Act, which passed in 2010.  This bill created an incentive fund at USAID to actively encourage economic opportunity projects that incorporate women’s needs in developing countries.  It offers women a range of tools to lift themselves out of poverty by helping them start and expand businesses, enhance their land and property rights, and help to ensure their access to the benefits of trade.

In order for countries like the Philippines to address their housing challenges and be able to provide affordable homes for their low-income populations they must take gender equity into consideration, especially if a woman is the head of the household.  This entails three key elements including advancing women’s equal participation as home partners and financial managers, protecting human rights for women and girls, and reducing inequality to resources by including women as decision makers at the household and community level.

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