Regional Consultation on the “Women’s Right to Adequate Housing and Land”

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT, 28 July 2004 – On Monday, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Mr. Miloon Kothari (India) concluded four days of consultations here with women’s rights defenders in the Arab world. The Cairo coordination office of the Habitat International Coalition’s Housing and Land Rights Network organized the event at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina with the support and cooperation of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Geneva). The Alexandria Consultation formed the fourth in a series of regional meetings between women’s rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur that previously took place in east Africa, Asia, Latin America, and will follow with a November 2004 Pacific Rim consultation in Fiji. The main purpose of the consultation was to advise the UN Special Rapporteur and provide testimonies on women’s housing and land rights issues across the region, and to generate guidance for States on how to meet their housing and land rights duties in a context of gender equality. The Special Rapporteur noted that, particularly in the Middle East/North Africa region, a “culture of silence” persists on women’s housing and land rights issues, “in spite of the tremendous strength and articulation of Arab women’s rights defenders, despite the prevalence of problems in this area of human right and need, and in contravention of the majority of Arab States’ treaty obligations to respect, defend, promote and fulfil women’s human right to adequate housing and land.” The themes arising from the Alexandria Consultation included the sources and solutions to women’s housing rights problems related to domestic violence, urban force evictions, inadequate housing conditions, legal obstacles, occupation/militarism and globalization. Inheritance also counted as a major theme of the testimonies and discussions, with Dr. Azza Soliman of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (Cairo) providing guidance and advice on norms and practices in the region affecting women’s enjoyment of inheritance rights to the home and land. The participants represented civil society organizations in seven countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, historic and occupied Palestine, Sudan and Syria. The Housing and Land Rights Network’s coordinator Joseph Schechla explained that, in addition, the process also involves consultation with a wider network of partners, including those in Iraq, Yemen and Morocco. Asma Juma`a, of the Entishar Charitable Society (Khartoum) testified about the urgent need to amend and enforce Sudanese laws to protect the rights of women, especially as vulnerable and illiterate heads of households whose principal breadwinner has been killed in armed conflict. Ms. Juma`a Asma also addressed the enormous problems that women face in the slums that have mushroomed on the outskirts of Khartoum, with no attention from the government. A Palestinian participant from the Center for Democracy and Workers Rights (West Bank & Gaza) told of the many obstacles and violations of Palestinian women’s right to secure tenure, particularly under Israeli occupation, traditional social practices and displacement. Zinat al-Askary, attorney with the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights (Cairo) related that it is well known that women in Egypt and the Arab world are treated with negative discrimination; whereas the government neither seeks to protect citizens—especially women—from violence, nor avoids official violence. Urban centers of impoverished citizens living in inadequate housing and deteriorating social conditions remain vulnerable to State-sponsored deprivation by way of forced evictions without compensation or adequate relocation, and suffering as other peoples under alien occupation. In addition to the clear obligation of States in the region to play an active role in tackling the housing and land rights crisis from which women suffer disproportionately, the participants agreed that there was a need for much more focus from civil society organisations and UN agencies on these issues. The many problems identified in the Alexandria Consultation lent themselves to posing solutions based on some good practices available for local application such that housing and economic development policies need to be human centered with a standard of gender equality. The Alexandria Consultation was organized with the first two days dedicated to training in the methods of monitoring housing and land rights that seek solutions based on codified human rights and State obligations. Participants shared problem-solving strategies for future pursuit in a spirit of mutuality and reciprocity, which HLRN organizers explained was one further objective of the Alexandria Consultation. Leaving from Cairo today, Mr. Kothari noted that several examples of positive practices emerged from the consultation, such as: • Bahrain’s parliament proposing to ensure that allocated housing be registered in the names of both spouses, • NGO provision of microcredit for women’s improvement of housing conditions, • Women’s collective action to address common problems, as alternative to passive or individual approaches. The recommendations arising from the consultation focused on the need to: • enforce existing laws protecting women’s housing rights, • regulate economic globalization and privatisation negatively affecting housing markets, • have women’s interest groups work more on housing groups, and vice versa, • seek creative ways to interact with the United Nations. The testimonies and practical recommendations from this and the other regional consultations with the Special Rapporteur Miloon Kothari will appear in his report to the UN Commission for Human Rights at its 61st session, in 2005.