|Women in Human Settlements Development - Getting the Issues Right (HABITAT, 1995, 60 p.)|
Throughout the world, women face various constraints related to access to land and property. Laws, customs and economics all prevent women from owning, inheriting and using land. This in turn adversely affects their access to shelter, and their contribution to shelter development.
Law, custom and economics all impede womens access to land and property.
In Kenya, where thousands of women get together in hundreds of groups to deal with many issues confronting women, buying land is one significant objective of many of these groups. Women get together specifically to pool their savings to buy land, or to start some economic activity that will eventually enable them to do so. This is true of both rural and urban women. It also applies to the very-low-income and the relatively better-off middle-income groups. Membership includes single women with no children, women heads of households and married women.
The names of such groups are interesting. Some popular names (in various Kenyan languages) are:
Hodari, means courageous
Kugeria, to try, or to be determined
Kujitokeza, to stand up for oneself, to stand up to be seen to dedicate oneself
Mugorogoro is a small tin used to measure grain in the market. The idea behind this name is that of slow accumulation of resources.
In many customary-law situations, women may have no right to own land except through fathers, husbands, sons or other male relatives. This can make the situation of widows with no sons, or unmarried women very difficult. Even for married women with sons, their access is dependent on their being in good terms with the concerned males. There are legal systems in which women are treated as minors, unable to make transactions without a male relativess consent. In Zimbabwe this law was repealed recently.
Even in traditional and modern societies where women have the right to own and inherit land, the introduction of cash economies and the growing importance of land as a commodity results in women having little chance of owning land. This is due to the high cost of land, as well as women being unaware of their rights, where they exist. All this is at a time when land is becoming increasingly important as a means of getting credit for economic activities and for building houses, among other things.
Lack of access to land has other serious implications. For women in the subsistence economy, land means a place to live, to work, to grow food and to get building materials. In rural areas where population pressure, wide-scale cultivation of cash crops or commercial exploitation, such as logging, are eroding traditional lands, the burden on women to maintain shelters and feed families is increasing.
It is no surprise therefore that women have been organizing around the protection of traditional lands and ecosystems, in many countries, developed and developing. In Papua New Guinea, where many men work away from the villages, leaving the women to defend the land, women are fighting not only against the logging companies, but also against a system that only allows land transfers among men. They are fighting to be recognized as rightful owners of land as part of the community, and to be fully involved in decisions concerning its exploitation.
In poor urban areas, women also face problems related to land ownership and use. Studies have shown that women-headed households predominate among low-income and informal settlements. Low-income settlements tend to be located on marginal, often hazardous, land, precisely because this is the least attractive to land developers, and, therefore, less likely to be a target for evictions. However, settlements on such land tend to be crowded, dangerous, lacking space on which to grow food, or too polluted for food growing.
Land for informal-sector activities and food-growing should be legalized and planned for in urban areas.
Town planners and housing project designers often fail to plan or legislate for land for informal economic activities as well as subsistence food and livestock raising. Yet it is well known that in many urban households, people (especially women) are growing food and keeping small livestock for subsistence, because they do not earn enough to pay for all their food requirements.
Eviction of residents of informal settlements is perhaps the most dramatic (and often violent) manifestation of the fight for land and the position of the poor in this fight. Women suffer the most when such events occur. It is women who have to look after the family without a shelter, lose their food-growing areas, and often crops, and being the majority of informal-sector workers, lose their work support networks.
Women have, therefore, been prominent in struggles against eviction, and for regularization of tenure in informal settlements. There are several instances where residents have been able to come to some agreement with the authorities, and have gained recognition of their right to stay on and use the land. While such agreement may not be formal or official to the extent of providing titles to the land, they nevertheless recognize residents rights.
Villa El Salvador, in Lima, is one such example. Similar cases can be cited in Mexico City and in SPaolo in Brazil. In Bangkok, land-sharing has emerged as one way of accommodating the needs of both the occupants and the legal landowners. In Lusaka, a group of grassroots women managed to convince the local authority not to destroy an informal settlement without providing an alternative for the residents. They convinced authorities that the manner and extent of the eviction was a violation of the human rights of the people concerned.
The community land trust is a form of ownership where the land belongs to a community, and individuals have ownership rights over their house (structure) and user rights over the land. This model helps to remove land from the speculative market, thus making it more accessible to marginalized groups, which include poor women.
It must be pointed out that many factors can influence whether or not residents manage to get their occupation rights recognized. One significant factor is the level of community organization and consciousness. The more successful cases are those in which the whole community, men and women, has been mobilized. Access to legal aid, information, training on organizing and negotiating and the presence of truly representative community leaders increase the chances for the community succeeding in gaining the right to stay.
Apart from the legal, economic and policy constraints to womens access to land, the systems for land delivery in many countries pose problems to any citizen trying to acquire land. The situation is more difficult for the poor, and even more so for women, who may not have the necessary money and information.
In one East African country it is estimated that obtaining a land title requires 33 separate transactions involving government bureaucracy, in a protracted process that may take up to three years. No doubt there are those who are able to go through the necessary process in a short time. It all depends on the amount of money, knowledge and personal clout one may have.
What would a rural widow do to obtain a title deed under such circumstances? She would probably be forced to spend several hours travelling from her village to the nearest land office, located in town. Once there she would then join the queue, which would be mostly made up of men. While discreetly feeding her baby she would worry whether her other children at home had eaten. Being illiterate, she would be forced to make friends quickly with the man ahead of her in the queue. How else would she fill out the relevant forms? If she is patient enough, she may undergo this kind of procedure several more times, in the hope that in the end the piece of paper might provide her some form of security. Without it there are possibilities that her in-laws can chase her off the property.
This is not the only country where land delivery systems are centralized, tedious, inefficient and expensive and where women continue to be the ones that suffer most for it.
Removal of legal barriers to land and property ownership for women should be accompanied by review of land delivery systems, to make them more efficient.
In Kenya, the Government has recently taken a positive step in publishing a guide on land transactions. This book describes all the stages of land purchase and transfer, including the required documentation and charges.
The status quo rooted in sex discrimination and gender insensitivity will only change when women start lobbying for better living conditions, which include land rights. Such action will draw womens plight to the attention of policy-makers, legislators, politicians and women leaders, who can influence change.
The issue of tying finance and credit to land ownership also needs to be explored further on womens behalf. The women themselves, are finding practiced ways of overcoming the land-ownership barrier. Through self-help groups they are forming savings clubs variously known as tontines, merry-go-rounds and sou-sou. One could borrow a leaf from Trinidad and Tobago where the sou-sou (penny by penny) venture originated from the need to enable squatters to buy land. The system neither assumes members households are male-headed, nor does it require a strong collateral base such as a regular income or a credit record, which women often lack.
The afore-mentioned groups have recognized that they are disadvantaged under both traditional and modern land-ownership rights, and have taken steps to overcome this disadvantage, albeit within an unfair system.
More fundamental change is needed to help women overcome barriers to land ownership. Land reform cannot be ignored in this process. To date, little research has been carried out on the question of womens access to land, and how the constraints they face could be addressed. Research could help identify the constraints, and the data gathered used to legislate for womens equal access to property.
Another approach is lobbying for land reform. During the last decade in Zambia, women Parliamentarians lobbied with the help of a lawyers association, to pass an inheritance law so that when a man dies, his wife is guaranteed 25 per cent of his land, while 50 per cent goes to his children, and the rest to other dependents.
Land delivery is a major area requiring the enabling role of national governments.
Pressure groups, however, do not have to be confined to Parliamentarians. Women from different walks of life are getting together to lobby for their rights. Women legislators, lawyers, policy-makers, planners and community organizers, have their roles in providing the relevant information and pressing for the right legislation and action.
The Global Strategy for Shelter defines the major role of governments as that of enablers. Land is one area where a government enabling role is critical. Enabling means removing constraints on all sections of the community, facilitating peoples initiatives, and paying special attention to those who are currently disadvantaged. Women form a large proportion of this group.