Latin American Women speak out about their Access to Adequate Housing


Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)

Latin American Women speak out about their Access to Adequate Housing
11 March, 2005 – By Kathambi Kinoti. 89 views so far.

AWID speaks with Maria Silvia Emanuelli (MSE) of the Habitat International
Coalition Latin American Regional Office (HIC-AL) on the UN Special
Rapporteur’s Latin American consultation on women and the right to adequate

AWID: Could you please describe the work that HIC has been doing with the UN
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing?

MSE: Habitat International Coalition (HIC) [1] is international network of
over 400 social and nongovernmental organizations, academic, training and
research groups and human rights activists working in the habitat and
housing field in 80 countries worldwide. HIC acts as a pressure group in
defence of the homeless, the poor, and those living in inadequate
conditions. With UN consultative status, it constitutes a fundamental voice
in the definition, promotion, defence and implementation of the right to
housing at the international level. It is also a platform in the formulation
of nongovernmental sector strategies to influence formulation of public
policies and programmes in the human settlements and housing sphere.

In mid-October 2003, the Latin American HIC Regional Coordination Office was
requested by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Mr. Miloon Kothari, to
organize a Latin American Consultation on ‘Women and Adequate Housing’ in
Mexico City in December 2003. In 2002 we had cooperated in organizing his
first mission to Mexico. This time we organized for 20 community-based
women, with long histories of struggle, to give testimonies at the
Consultation. The women came from 14 Latin American countries, and they
spoke about situations of discrimination (we asked them about both positive
and negative discrimination) against women in the enjoyment of the right to
adequate housing. We then prepared a report highlighting the most relevant
issues that had come out of the testimonies as well as questionnaires that
we had administered. The report also contained the Rapporteur’s questions
and comments and the conclusions. This report contributed to a study on the
issue that has recently been presented by the Rapporteur to the UN Human
Rights Commission. [2]

HIC-AL has published the testimonies and reflections from the 20 women in a
publication dedicated to the leaders of the process and titled Vivienda con
rostro de mujer: Mujeres y derecho a una vivienda adecuada (Housing with a
woman’s face: Women and the right to housing). We thought this was a fitting
way to capture the importance of the issue, to follow up on the process and
disseminate it amongst civil society. We were also prompted by the
enthusiasm shown by the participating women. The publication was supported
and enriched by the HIC Women and Shelter Network and Social Watch, and was
presented within the workshop on “Women and Adequate Housing” at the First
Social Forum of the Americas held in Quito, Ecuador in July 2004. The
presentation included the participation of four of the women from the Mexico
City Consultation (from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru). In order to again
disseminate and promote reflection and proposals on the greatest obstacles
faced by the world’s women, in accessing the right to housing, HIC-AL, with
the help of several other Latin American, African and Asian HIC-member
organizations and other networks, organized a workshop in conjunction with
the World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January this year.
Through testimonies, that workshop took another look at some of the most
relevant issues addressed in the African, Asian and Latin American
Consultations. The results from each of these activities were shared with
the Special Rapporteur.

AWID: What housing and land rights issues came up during the consultations,
particularly with regard to women? Are there issues common to the different
Latin American countries?

MSE: The testimonies presented during the Consultation were divided into
four thematic blocks:
1. The social production of habitat, by which we mean production
carried out under the control of self-producers and other social actors
operating without a profit motive, and oriented primarily to addressing the
housing needs of the low income sectors who lack social protection. We
collected experiences from Brazil, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Bolivia;
2. Displacements and forced evictions. We gathered testimonies about
these from women in Colombia, Dominican Republic and Mexico;
3. Housing legislation and practices. Testimonies came from Ecuador, El
Salvador, Guatemala, Peru and Mexico;
4. Discrimination and segregation toward women in recognition of the
right to housing. Testimonies were gathered from Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina
and Mexico.

Each testimony was different due to the different political and social
contexts of each country, but all testimonies had something in common. While
on the one hand, the national Constitutions recognize equal legal rights
between men and women and protect the right to property (especially private
property), on the other hand the laws and policies in most cases ignore the
gender perspective and are generally not enforced. Overriding everything
there are cultural, traditional and religious obstacles that impede women’s
full enjoyment of the right to property, and therefore the right to adequate
housing. Several testimonies mentioned numerous obstacles to access to
housing credit, such as the requirement that women have their husband’s
guarantee signature in order to qualify for a loan, or they are entirely
excluded from housing credit because they do not work in the formal sector.
The women also highlighted the need to strengthen women’s inheritance
rights; the right of married women to continue to own their homes and be
protected in common law unions, and the effective right to land for women in
indigenous communities. It was also noted that obstacles to access to
property also derive from the feminization of poverty due to, among other
causes, privatization of public services, with particularly negative impacts
on women; wage differentiation between men and women, and the lack of
information among women about their rights, often leading to loss of tenure.

In specific relation to the testimonies on social production of habitat, the
women in general denounced the lack of instrumental conditions (legal,
financial and technical instruments) needed to develop or improve people’s
housing efforts. In the testimonies on evictions and displacements, the
women denounced their often violent and uncompensated implementation, and
the fact that their justification can often be traced to commercial land
market interests.

AWID: What strategies do you suggest to respond to the issues?

MSE: The participants themselves have employed and proposed several
strategies. Many of the women referred to the need to coordinate and
negotiate with the governments to influence the laws and programmes that may
have an impact on the recognition and fulfillment of the right to housing in
general and that of women in particular. In this sense, the Brazilian
participant shared the experience of her organization, la União Nacional por
Moradia Popular, which has achieved implementation of a law that mandates
the Mayor of Sao Paulo to grant priority to women in all the housing
programmes, in relation to housing title, as well as in the case of
assistance programmes. The same organization also lobbied and worked for a
law proposal, approved last year, which establishes the institution of a
special National Fund for underprivileged groups to guarantee their access
to financial resources. Another experience is that in Peru where a few years
ago several organizations, many of them HIC members, launched a “Campaign
for the right to dignified housing for all men and women,” with the
objective to mobilize local and national authorities to implement measures
to address the country’s serious housing problems, through a broad process
in coordination with social organizations and civil society institutions. To
date the Committee has achieved, among other things, the drafting of a
constitutional reform proposal that reincorporates the right to housing, and
the elaboration of a proposal to support the process of social production of
housing and the city.

Considering also that Latin American Constitutions and civil codes recognize
equality between men and women based on an androcentric concept of equality,
the HIC Women and Shelter Network has worked for many years to reinforce the
application of affirmative policies that favour women and specific groups of
women such as female household heads and the vast majority of poor women who
work in the informal sector, to achieve the drafting of property
redistribution policies in favour of gender equity. To promote women’s
rights to property and housing, the Network also emphasizes the importance
of gender representation in different government bodies, and the support of
governmental and cooperation programmes for the strengthening of female

Various resistance strategies have also been presented, such as that of the
Ecuadorian participant and the women from her cooperative, who impede
evictions by chaining themselves or simulating a burial in front of their

Most of the testimonies also revealed the need for a strategy oriented to
inform, educate and train women about their rights and the relevant laws, as
well as about access to communications media.

On the part of the three networks that participated in this whole process,
the strategic commitment is to collaborate with the women and their
organizations to strengthen the linkages both among them and the regional
and international networks linked to these issues, and with the office of
the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur, and other
UN bodies. In this sense, as I mentioned earlier, we have provided support
at the institutional level in logistical tasks, communications, and
dissemination, in order to give voice to the true leading actors in this

AWID: What challenges did you face during the consultations?

MSE: We had intended to have a woman from each Latin American country
participate, but this was difficult to organize. From the Caribbean we were
only able to invite two representatives from the Dominican Republic.
However, as requested by the Rapporteur, we did get women from social
movements, whose testimonies were personal but also paradigmatic at the
national and even regional levels. The preparation of the testimonies and
their reading within the framework of economic, social and cultural rights
and the right to adequate housing, as defined in the international
instruments, implied coordination and work by all those who participated in
and supported the event, and the result was very rich and forceful. Finally,
shortly before the end of the event, the Rapporteur gave a press conference
at the United Nations, to which he invited one of the participants from the
Dominican Republic and the participant from Uruguay to briefly present their
experiences. Unfortunately the issue received very limited press coverage.
In this sense the challenge remains to achieve clear and critical
positioning among public opinion, through effective use of the press, of
issues related to economic, social and cultural rights.

AWID: What do you hope will be the impact of your work on the UN and UN
processes, and (vice versa) what do you hope will be the impact of the UN
processes on the housing and land rights situation?

MSE: In its first phase (1976-1987), HIC cultivated an active and critical
relationship with the United Nations bodies and established itself as a
spokesperson for NGOs and as recognized interlocutor, opening spaces for
participation of the habitat NGOs in national and international debates on
policies in this field. In its next phase (1988-1998), consistent work was
established in the area of habitat-related human rights; consultative status
was obtained within the UN, and systematic participation began to be
maintained in the main UN human rights bodies. This allowed HIC, among other
things, to influence the proposal and drafting of documents adopted by said
bodies defining the right to housing, allowing the monitor of governmental
compliance, sanctioning violations (such as forced evictions) and promoting
both its recognition in national instruments and its concrete implementation
(in General Comments 4 and 7 of the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Committee, among others). It is also important to point out the good
relationship and understanding between our organization and the Special
Rapporteur, who served for several years as the coordinator of the HIC
Housing Rights Committee. For these reasons, and considering that numerous
HIC members have participated in different ways in all the Consultations
organized to date throughout the world by the Rapporteur, we feel that the
proposals and conclusions formulated in the Consultation, in addition to the
content of the testimonies, will be reflected in the Rapporteur’s work and
most specifically in the Study on the issue to be presented this year.

In response to the second part of the question, we feel that to date the UN’s
impact on the situation of the human right to housing has been slow but very
positive and important. The documents that recognize the right to housing
(especially General Comments 4 and 7 come to mind) as well as the
recommendations produced by the different bodies (the Rapporteur and the
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for example) and the
possibility to present denouncements and urgent actions, have strengthened
the work of many nongovernmental, civil and social organizations who work in
the field. In this sense the UN documents constitute an important base to
monitor compliance by governments and to lobby at the national level, as
well as for efforts to influence public policies and legislative proposals.
On the other hand, UN impact on the right to land is still very limited and
we hope it can be reinforced in the future, also thanks to the lobbying of

1. The HIC International Secretariat based in Chile may be contacted at:, or for more information on its international work, consult
its web page at The Latin American regional office
in Mexico City may be contacted at:, or consult its web

2. The report of the Special Rapporteur can be found at