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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 5 - No. 3 - 1999 - Security of Tenure (HABITAT, 1999, 63 p.)
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by Marjolein Benschop and Catalina Trujillo

“Everything was fine for me and my children while my husband was alive. We had shelter and also land on which to grow cabbage and maize. My life was simple but I was happy. Then, all of a sudden, my life changed drastically. One evening a neighbour came to my house, a close friend of my husband’s, and told me my husband had been in a terrible bus accident. He was dead! Of course, I was devastated, but at least I knew I had my children and my home.

“I started looking for a job - any kind of a job to respond to the needs of my growing children. (I have a daughter 12 years old and another daughter 10 years of age.) But almost immediately, maybe two or three days after my husband’s burial, his brothers came to see me and informed me that I had two days to pack my things and leave (with my children) because their mother needed the house and it was rightfully theirs - as my husband’s brothers. I couldn’t believe they would do this to me. Two days later, we were out on the street. One of my married sisters took us in for a while but I knew we could not stay for long, so I began looking for help.

“One day a friend of mine told me she had met a woman lawyer who was helping widows inherit their husband’s property. She told me that women had a right to own and inherit houses, land and property - just like men! She took me one day to see this woman and I found out that she belongs to an organization which helps widows fight for their rights. I am now one of her clients (even though I have no money to pay her) and she is working on my case. M y dream is that my daughters will never have to go through the same ordeal!”

- Mary, from Zambia

© UNCHS? Wambu

The above real life story is not just one woman’s story. This is happening all over the world, one way or another. It is not just an African phenomenon although the reasons why women do not have access to, and even less control over, land and housing vary from region to region and country to country. Still, the basic fact that women do not enjoy the same rights to land and housing that men do cannot be denied.

Special focus on women

Some people argue that women’s needs and rights can be addressed by mainstreaming them in a general campaign for security of tenure for the urban poor. UNCHS (Habitat)’s Women and Habitat Programme and the women’s networks linked to it are of a different opinion; considering women’s specific socio-economic context, different treatment from men may be required in order to adequately remedy the constraints faced by women.

An example of the importance of placing a special focus on women’s special needs vis is security of tenure can be found in the Community Land Trust (CLT) Model in Voi, Kenya. The CLT Model was introduced in Voi in the early nineties and was documented as a best practice from Kenya during the Habitat II Conference in 1996. The Government of Kenya recognized the rights of the slum dwellers in Voi to secure a communal land title while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provided logistical, technical and legal support. The CLT Model is seen as an innovative approach to the issue of land tenure as it is based on an African perspective of land ownership that benefits the community rather than the individual.

At first glance, this model could be called a success. But a closer look reveals that at least half of the residents of the community are not benefiting from its advantages: according to one of the local NGOs working in Voi, Kituo Cha Sheria (Legal Aid Center), lack of a specific focus on women’s interests has led to the marginalization of women, as community traditions kept men in place as the main decision-makers. This example shows that women do not automatically benefit from tenure models designed to benefit a community. In countries and regions where patriarchal customs still dominate, communal land tenure systems could be said to be disadvantageous to women. Where specific attention is paid to this problem and, for example, women’s cooperatives within a community are supported, the benefit for women seems to be much greater and the risk of their marginalization much smaller. A Communal Land Trust Model can therefore work very well, but only if the special needs of women are taken into consideration.

International Instruments

The right to security of tenure is an element of the right to adequate housing, a widely recognized human right which is laid down in several international Conventions, and in various Resolutions and Declarations adopted by different UN bodies.1 In addition, guidelines and comments on the details of what the right to adequate housing entails have been issued. The right to adequate housing and the elements of this right are enshrined in the Habitat Agenda (paragraphs 26, 39, 60 and 61), and a special focus on this right for women is emphasized in several paragraphs, the most important being paragraphs 40 and 46.

© UNCHS/Wambu

While the human (women’s and men’s) right to adequate housing is widely recognized at the international level, up to recently the need for a special focus on women’s practical problems in acquiring access to land and housing was overlooked. Women’s organizations succeeded in drawing attention to these problems during the Beijing Conference in 1995 and the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996, as a result of which The Habitat Agenda specifically mentions the constraints faced by women in obtaining access to secure and adequate shelter and ways to remove these constraints.2

In 1997, the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted Resolution 1997/19 on Women and the right to adequate housing and to land and property. In this Resolution, the UN Sub-Commission recognizes that women’s inability to secure and maintain the right to adequate housing is a result of gender-biased laws, policies, customs and traditions, which exclude women from acquiring land, security of tenure and inheritance rights to land and property. It urges governments, civil society organizations and UN bodies to take action at their respective levels to ensure that women’s right to adequate housing will be enforced and that discrimination in the realization of their right is eradicated. International financial institutions are urged to take into account the human rights implications for women of their policies, in particular structural adjustment programmes and the funding of large-scale development projects that often lead to forced eviction.

In 1998 the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted Resolution 1998/15 in which it expresses concern about the discrimination faced by women, as a result of which the number of women living in poverty is increasing disproportionately to the number of men. It affirms that discrimination faced by women with respect to acquiring and securing land, property and housing, constitutes a violation of women’s human rights to equality, protection against discrimination and to the equal enjoyment of their right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing. It also supports the view that women’s unequal situation will not always be remedied by the identical treatment of men and women and states that adequate remedies may require a different treatment for women, based on a consideration of women’s specific socio-economic context. Again, the Sub-Commission urges governments, civil society organizations, UN bodies and (international) financial institutions to take appropriate action.3

Although these Resolutions are not legally binding, they show that there is an increasing awareness within human rights bodies in the UN of the importance of a special focus on women’s right to land, property and adequate housing and the access to this right for women all over the world.

Other UN bodies, like the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Commission on Human Rights are expected to adopt resolutions, recommendations and/or comments on the same issue in the coming years. The UN Housing Rights Programme, a joint programme of UNCHS (Habitat) and the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) will also include a component on Women’s Housing Rights.

Marjolein Benschop is Legal Researcher in UNCHS (Habitat)’s Women and Habitat Programme. Catalina Trujillo is Coordinator of UNCHS (Habitat)’s Women and Habitat Programme.

In order for the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure to become a success for women, the Women and Habitat Programme requests your input on what forms of tenure you think work best for women. As mentioned above, communal land systems can only work for women if their interests are specifically taken into account. Joint titles to land, property and adequate housing could be another guarantee that women will benefit from security of tenure. Any other ideas, thoughts and feedback on forms of tenure that work for women can be sent to the Women and Habitat Programme, c/o: Marjolein Benschop. Email:


1 For a complete list of articles in international instruments in which the right to adequate housing is laid down, please contact the Women and Habitat Programme at UNCHS (Habitat) or the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), 83 Rue Montbrillant, Geneva 1202, Switzerland, E-mail].

2 (Paragraphs 15, 27, 28, 31, 37, 38, 40, 42, 43, 46, 48, 61(b), 63, 72, 75, 76(m), 78, 79, 81(j), 82(c), 83, 86(g), 93, 98, 115, 116, 117, 118, 119, 122, 123, 124, 141, 162, 182, 186, 201.)

3 If you are connected to email and would like to read the full text of both Resolutions, please contact the Women and Habitat Programme, c/o Marjolein Benshop, P.O. Box 30030, Nairobi, Kenya, E-mail:

© UNCHS/P. Wambu

Gloria’s Story

“We had been living in Canteras, Bogota (Colombia) for over 45 years. In fact, my father and mother brought me here to live when I was two years old. I grew up here, married here and have raised my six children here. We knew from the very beginning that the land was owned by the military. But they let us live here in exchange for our working the “canteras” (the lime stone quarry). All of us suffer from tuberculosis - they say it’s because of breathing in the dust from the stones. Anyway, together we built our houses, a school and creche for our children, our own water supply, the roads, a communal vegetable garden - everything we have done together.

Then, one Saturday, we were informed that we had to be off the land by the next Saturday. This wasn’t the first time we had been threatened with eviction so we were ready!

We decided that the women and children would sit inside the houses when the military came and that the men would simply inform them that even though they had tried to convince their women, the women had said they would only leave their homes dead, but never alive!

We decided to act this way because the military were prone to be less violent with the women and children, whereas, with the men, they had no qualms about using force and one of my own brothers had been shot the last time!

The military arrived in full force - around 100 men with rifles and bayonets. I cannot tell you that we were not afraid - we were very afraid - but we found courage in singing together “we shall overcome” as we sat in our simple homes and held our children in our arms.

They were there about four hours in total but to us it seemed like a lifetime. Our men were calm and peaceful and never confrontational. Finally, the sergeant in charge told his men to retreat, promising us that he would return soon! When they left, we danced and sang and vowed to keep up the struggle.

This was in the 1980s. Now, we all have title to our land, thanks to our own struggle and the support of the professionals from the self-help housing Federation and the new Colombian Urban Reform, which we also pushed for.

I hope our experience will encourage others. United we are strong!”

Secure Tenure Indicators
by Christine Auclair

The primary information needed for monitoring security of tenure is Tenure Types as the percentage of households in cities under the eight following tenure categories:

· Percentage of owners (1): What percentage of households have a clear title or ownership of the house (formal housing) and land they occupy, possibly through a company structure or as condominiums or strata title, or long leasehold of land? Among them, how many are in the process of purchasing (2) a house, i.e. owner-occupiers with a formal mortgage over the property?

· Percentage of tenants in private (3) or social housing (4): What percentage of households are in (formal) housing for which rents are paid to a private landlord who is the legal owner? How many are in public, parastatal or NGO-owned or operated housing, including government employee housing and housing owned or operated by co-operatives?

· Percentage of sub-tenants (5): What is the proportion of households who are renting from another household who is renting the premises?

· Percentage of squatters (6): How many households in squatter housing, or housing which has no title to the land on which it stands? How many of them pay a rent (7)?

· Other forms of tenure (8): How many households are nomads/migrants, homeless, living in institutions or hotels and other places?

The percentages have to be given by sex of the household head, counting separately women and men-headed households. Separate figures provide crucial information for a gender-based assessment of security of tenure. A number of field studies on security of tenure suggests that women-headed households often constitute a majority under the precarious tenure status. Gender disaggregated information helps in understanding the conditions of both women and men and assists in undertaking the necessary actions to mitigate imbalances, if any.

This indicator provides a relatively comprehensive overview of the share of different tenure status among urban dwellers. The safest tenure status is individual ownership, followed by ownership and tenancy in social housing and, when rental regulations are protective enough, private tenancy can offer a fairly safe tenure to households. The most common precarious tenure status is homelessness and/or squatter, which can also be used as distinct indicators.

Homeless people are those who sleep outside dwelling units (e.g. on streets, in parks, railroad stations, and under bridges) or in temporary shelters in charitable institutions. As people may move in and out of homeless situations during the year, it is difficult to measure the exact number of homeless persons in a city; most homelessness figures measure the number of such persons on a given night. Data for this indicator remains very difficult to collect at the city level, easier at the district level.

The percentage of squatter households in urban areas is probably the most useful proxy measure for assessing the level of security of tenure. Squatter households are those which have no title to the land on which they stand. Households which pay rent in squatter settlements, in most cases, to another squatter household who has built and owns the house on the informally occupied land, have generally the most precarious tenure status. They run the highest risk of eviction, either from their secondary “land-lords” to whom they pay the rent or from the original land owner. High levels of squatter housing indicate that the formal land market does not provide affordable residential land for housing, forcing households to occupy land illegally, thus leading to insecure tenure subject to forced evictions in a large number of cities. Since the percentage of squatter households is not always easy to obtain, the proportion of squatter areas (or informal settlements) in the total urban built-up area can provide a good measure of the level of tenure security. Although not usually given in terms of households, it is a fairly practical proxy, useful for planning purposes, and is often estimated through aerial photographs at the city and district levels.

Another important indicator is Eviction defined as the average annual number of households evicted from rental and squatter dwellings during the last five years. In developing countries the major component of this indicator is squatter evictions. In many countries, governments have chosen to allow long-term squatter settlements to remain in place, and have improved infrastructure and secured land tenure, thereby allowing the residents to invest more in improving their housing. In other countries, however, eviction continues unabated. Whether it is legal or illegal, eviction has generally negative social impacts on the concerned population. This indicator measures the degree to which this practice is still in force. Because eviction is usually irregular and intermittent, the value for this indicator is an average over the last five-year period. In developed countries the indicator refers to evictions during large public works projects but mostly to evictions for non-payment of rent, and measures affordability conditions and the availability of legal recourse by landlords.

Christine Auclair is Adviser to the UNCHS (Habitat) Urban Indicators Programme.

Some Examples of Best Practices in Improving Security of Tenure

Housing Programme for the Peripheral Areas of Xalapa, Vera Cruz, Mexico
On the outskirts of Xalapa in the State of Vera Cruz, Mexico, a low-income squatter community successfully negotiated with city and State authorities to improve its living environment. In 1991, the Union of Tenants and Housing Applicants, a community organization, developed a Plan for 80 low-income neighbourhoods in Xalapa’s periphery, which was approved by the State and city authorities. Approval of the Plan was a major breakthrough allowing for the squatter community to be officially recognized as part of the city. To implement the Plan, the community has since received support from the Ford Foundation and NOVIB, a Dutch NGO, for training on housing and planning issues. In 1997, CENVI, a Mexican NGO, initiated an Integrated Social and Urban Improvement Plan, which included a housing project, a women’s credit scheme and nutrition and education projects in the area. This programme received the Dubai International Award for Best Practices in Improving the Living Environment in 1998.

Community Infrastructure (Upgrading) Programme (CIP), Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania
Dar-es-Salaam City Council in realizing that it could not meet all its residents’ demands for basic services, developed a Community Infrastructure (Upgrading) Programme to assist communities to improve their own neighbourhoods. The Programme, initiated in 1995, works closely with communities to enhance their planning, implementation and monitoring activities and with the City Council to improve its ability to work with communities to implement infrastructure projects. In Tabata, a low-income neighbourhood, the water supply system is being run and paid for by the residents themselves, and revenue generated is, in turn, helping to finance solid waste collection. The strong sense of community responsibility is helping to ensure long-term sustainability of the Programme. This programme received the Dubai International Award for Best Practices in Improving the Living Environment in 1998.

Fawos, Vienna, Austria
Debts, low income and other financial problems are the most common causes of evictions in Vienna, Austria. In response, Fawos, a local non-governmental organization, offers counselling on legal issues, financial support and entitlement information, household planning, short-term, intensive social work and financial support. As a result, the number of evictions carried out has reduced by one-third.

Partners in Development, Naga City, The Philippines
The “Partners in Development” programme in Naga City, The Philippines, has adopted a conflict resolution mechanism as a cornerstone of its urban poor programme. This mechanism brings together government agencies, urban poor associations and their allied non-governmental organizations and private landowners to solve land tenure problems. Today, all land problems involving the urban poor in Naga are referred to and pass through this mechanism. In 1998, Naga City received the Dubai International Award for Best Practices for its participatory approaches to urban governance and management.

Public-Private Partnership for Housing, Poland
In 1992, the responsibility for housing in Poland was transferred to the local level. The newly-elected local authorities, however, did not have the capacity to fully take on this responsibility. A non-governmental organization stepped in and is helping families, banks, architects, private developers and local officials interact and produce quality, affordable housing. Thirty-six democratic housing cooperatives, with 1,335 member-families, have been created according to this public-private partnership model.

All of the above best practices are documented and available on the Internet at: They are part of the over 600 Good and Best Practices compiled by UNCHS (Habitat) on its Best Practices database.