|Women in Human Settlements Development - Getting the Issues Right (HABITAT, 1995, 60 p.)|
Housing can be simply described as a place to live in peace, safety and dignity, and there are many scholars and practitioners who argue that it should be recognized as a basic human right. This definition implies security, privacy, access to the means of making a livelihood and a base from which to develop. Safety also implies a clean and healthy environment. To many, housing represents an investment, a source of income and a symbol of permanence and security.
Housing is a fundamental human need: that means it should be available and suitable for all.
However, many do not have access to housing and those who do have no say in how their housing is developed. This is especially true of the poor in developing countries, and more so for women who are the majority of the poor.
Very often adequate care is not taken in designing, planning and implementing housing programmes and projects to make sure that the needs of all users are addressed.
An interesting phenomenon has been observed in low-income public-housing projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America: as soon as residents assume ownership of the houses, they start making changes. People knock down walls to make bigger rooms, put in partitions to enclose certain areas, make extensions and generally change the interior to suit themselves. One woman in a new neighbourhood in Nairobi. Kenya, was heard saying, Instead of putting in two bathrooms in the house, they should have provided a place to store charcoal...
How should women participate?
In many traditional societies women participate in the construction and maintenance of their homes. In urban areas in developing countries, up to 70 per cent of the housing is built by informal or unpaid labour, a great proportion of which is womens labour. Women may plaster walls, mould bricks, pack down new mud floors or help repair a roof. In some instances, such as with the Maasai of Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania, women are solely responsible for constructing homes. Yet, because this occurs in the informal sector where little or no money is exchanged, womens contribution and experience go unrecognized. Moreover, women are getting left out of the modern, formal construction sector.
There are many good reasons why women should participate in housing development. One of them is that they have as much right to participate in projects which profoundly affect their lives as men. Women are the primary users of housing. They are, therefore, the most affected by housing and settlement projects. This is especially true given the amount of time they spend in the house: women often have to combine employment with household and child-rearing roles and, therefore, have to work in and around the home.
In rural areas, and in unplanned urban settlements, women are also the main providers of services. For example, a large proportion of womens self-help projects are concerned with water and day-care. Official housing projects with self-help components have tended to depend a lot on womens labour.
This kind of participation, which in many cases has been a big burden, has been imposed on women by circumstances, and by official insensitivity to womens needs and circumstances.
What is needed is the participation of women and men in the planning and designing of settlements - this means houses, neighbourhoods and cities.
Some specific difficulties faced by women in shelter projects
When women are not consulted at the planning and design stages of human settlements development, then their needs and priorities may not be taken into account. These may be related to particular cultural requirements, or to the need to combine income-earning and household tasks. This can cause severe problems. Womens lives can be adversely affected by introducing services that are inappropriate to their needs. For example, in a neighbourhood in El Salvador, women would not use the public toilets provided because a gap was left at the bottom of the door and exposed their feet, offending their notion of privacy. In Bangladesh, because of similar reasons of privacy, women could only use toilets before sunrise and after sunset, causing inconvenience and severe medical problems.
Womens needs are better addressed when women are involved in settlement design and planning.
Women often have to work in or near the home. Failure of architects and planners to recognize this has resulted in house designs that do not take into consideration the needs of women. In addition to this, zoning regulations separate residential and business activities, thus prohibiting the development of income-earning activities in the home or locally in residential areas. This has at times led to the harassment of women who have no choice but to locate businesses in areas not accepted by local authorities.
Failure to acknowledge the many roles that women play also leads to undue demands being made on womens time. This happens in public-sector interventions that do not consider womens special needs and situations. It is especially true in site-and-service projects and squatter-upgrading programmes where households are expected to participate in housing construction. Absence of day-care facilities, and the fact that women may not be able to afford the loss of income resulting from time taken off from economic activities makes participation difficult for women. Incorrect assumptions about womens ability to devote their time to self-help projects and to participate in the community process have thus often resulted in women being left out of projects. In such projects some women end up contracting labour because they do not have enough time to do the work themselves. This is too expensive and may place them in heavy debt, often forcing them to sell their plots.
Negative effects of relocation, and non-participatory upgrading
Non-participatory relocation and upgrading schemes have also tended to disrupt womens lives and economic activities. As a result, women often lose their mutual support networks through which they arrange employment, credit and child-care, among other things. Similarly, when upgrading changes single-storey housing to high-rise apartments, women forced to move to upper storeys lose considerably in the value of the house as a place from which to make a living - a street-level dwelling being more convenient as a place for business, especially if it involves vending.
Non-participatory upgrading and relocation disrupts the lives of those involved, especially women.
Under-employment in the construction sector
Another obstacle faced by women in housing is the lack of suitable employment in the modern construction sector. Although in many traditional societies women were partly or wholly responsible for house building, jobs offered to them in the modern formal sector are often limited to menial tasks like carrying water and sand. Moreover, the participation of women in the formal construction sector is amazingly low, especially in developing countries.
Lack of training
Lack of training is the most significant cause of under-representation and the low status of women in the construction industry. Lack of understanding of this sector also makes it easy for women to be exploited when they have to hire artisans to build for them. Maintenance of the house poses the same problem to the woman who has no understanding of building.
Women are under-represented in the modern construction sector, mostly due to lack of relevant skills, but also because of gender biases in that job sector.
Training of women can mobilize unemployed or under-employed labour resources, resulting in a more balanced distribution of jobs in the construction industry, and help women to acquire shelter through self-help construction. Skills acquired can also be used in house maintenance. One womens building cooperative in Cincinnati, in the United States of America, started with women heads of households learning simple house maintenance skills.
Jamaica also offers a positive example of training women for the construction industry. In this case, training was designed to meet identified needs and specific job openings in the construction industry. It must be noted, however, that measures to change the attitude of building-site supervisors are required, if more women are to be able to use their new skills.
Some specific problems of women-headed households
Another issue that is not given due attention is the increasing number of women heads of households who experience additional constraints. These have exceptionally low incomes and can hardly participate in many conventional housing projects. For example, in the Solanda site-and-service project in Quito, women heads of households made up 30 per cent of the total applicants, but 46 per cent of them did not qualify for access to the scheme because their incomes were too low. In Dandora, Kenya, some women heads of household could not afford to construct their houses according to specified standards and were forced to resell their plots. In Dodoma, United Republic of Tanzania, a programme of the Low Cost Housing Unit for supporting employment-based housing cooperatives left out a large percentage of women who did not have the minimum financial resources required.
Women-headed households are on the increase. Their existence needs to be recognized by policy-makers, planners and project implementers.
Many women cannot afford to make the down-payments in such projects. They cannot afford to repay fixed sums because of irregular incomes, and they lack collateral to get loans in the first place.
In spite of these problems, a number of successful credit programmes for women have been established, oriented towards employment, as a first step to housing. Examples include the Self-employed Womens Association in India, with 13,000 members, and the Women in Development Loan Fund in Barbados.
Overcoming the obstacles
For women to benefit from shelter development equally with men, both their special needs and their autonomous demand for shelter should be taken into account in policies, plans and programmes. This will also help to ensure that womens needs and concerns are incorporated in the design and implementation of housing projects. The issue of women and shelter has to be addressed in comprehensive programmes for increasing womens participation in settlement planning and management, at local and national levels. Such programmes will have to include better access to appropriate training as a prerequisite.
An essential starting point is gender sensitization of policy-makers, planners and human settlements professionals. This is one area in which women are under-represented even in developed countries. For example, in Toronto, Canada, out of an estimated 2000 architects, only about 10 per cent are women. Moreover, only 10 per cent of the 200 are actively applying gender concerns to their work. Obviously gender awareness needs to be raised in both men and women!
Fundamental changes in understanding, policy and planning are required if womens housing issues are to be adequately addressed. What is needed is a policy approach that acknowledges that women have different housing needs from those of men; that in many societies there are specific constraints that limit womens access to housing on the basis of gender, regardless of income; and that women in poor communities are doubly constrained.
Women predominate in informal settlements in most cities of developing countries.