Women and the Right to Adequate Housing: Connections and Strategies Forward


Pacific Regional Consultations on the Women’s Right to Adequate Housing and Land

By Alison G Aggarwal

In his 2005 Report on Women and Adequate Housing (E/CN.4/2005/43) the Special Rapportuer notes “the prevalence of certain cultural norms that deprive women of their rights to land, inheritance and property, which in turn prevents them from accessing their right to adequate housing.” The interconnections between land and housing, the extent to which women’s right to adequate housing is dependent on the right to adequate land, and the impact of custom and culture on women’s access and ownership to housing and land were most evident in the testimonies given by local grassroots women at the Pacific Regional Consultations in October 2004.

The Pacific has an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 islands that are commonly grouped into three regions: (1) Melanesia (e.g. Fiji, Papua New Guinea, (2) Micronesia (e.g. Kiribati, Marshall Islands), and (3) Polynesia (e.g. Tonga, Cook Islands). The landownership system on most islands is still predominantly clan based, characterised by communal land ownership and accompanied by clan members having identified duties and responsibilities to the clan and the land. The clan chiefs are the decision-makers within the clan, and in most places, women cannot be chiefs. The system of clan ownership of land is so strong in many islands that it is recognised even within the formal legal systems.

As land and housing rights are intimately connected in the Pacific, the Pacific regional consultations focused on the linkages between land, housing and inheritance rights of women, in the contexts of traditional and customary norms, violence, urbanisation and migration.

Before I outline in detail the major issues relating to women’s adequate housing and land that emerged from the consultations, I want to share some snapshots of the kinds of issues women raised:

In the consultations, Sose of PNG shared that being part of a matrilineal system, because her daughter married a man outside of the clan she relinquished her place in the clan. Without the clan’s approval her daughter cannot build a house on the clan land. Her daughter has requested permission from the clan chiefs, but is unlikely to receive this because her husband is unemployed and seen to have a lower status.

In the Cook Islands, according to the 2001 census only 30% of the resident population has land rights either by succession, sole occupation, joint occupation or lease. 70% of the people do not. This shows why women’s rights to adequate housing so often have to be negotiated within the clan systems.

Ofa of Tonga shared that when she first arrived at her marital home, it was in a state to be demolished. She wanted to live in a nice and adequate home so she put in a lot of money, stress and hard work to renovating the house. She also gave birth to a beautiful a baby girl in July 2003. But when her mother visited she told her to stop renovating until she had given birth to a son” because if her husband died, under both formal and customary law she would have to leave the house.

When you raise adequate housing issues in the Pacific you are also raise issues about land, and when women do this, it means they raise these issues against their families, clans, communities – and the discriminatory aspects of custom and culture. For one woman, challenging her right to access clan land meant challenging the prime minister of the country, who happened to be her uncle and the head of her clan as well. Thus women face problems in accessing justice to redress housing and land issues in both the formal legal systems and the customary law systems.

Florrie of Solomon Islands shared that she has had to grow up with people fighting over land all her life. She said “I am sick and tired of people fighting over land”. She wanted to get an education to get out of having to be dependent on clan land for her housing, but women are also discriminated against in terms of access to education.

The Pacific Regional Consultation on the Women’s Right to Adequate Housing and Land (Fiji, 12 – 15 October 2004) was the fifth in a series of regional meetings [1] held in cooperation with UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Adequate Housing (SRAH), Mr Miloon Kothari, in preparation for his reports to the Commission on Human Rights on women and adequate housing.

[The Commission on Human Rights received the SRAH’s preliminary report on women and adequate housing in 2003. In its resolution 2003/22 ‘Women’s equal ownership of, access to and control over land and the equal rights to own property and to adequate housing’, the Commission affirmed that discrimination against women in land, property and housing was a violation of human rights and encouraged governments to support transformation of customs and traditions. The Commission also encouraged human rights education concerning women’s rights to land, property and housing. The Commission requested the Special Rapporteur to submit a second report in 2005.]

It was jointly organised by the Fiji-based Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), Habitat International Coalition-Housing and Land Rights Network (South Asia Regional Programme), the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development and the International Women’s Rights and Action Watch-Asia Pacific. [8 resource persons from Australia, India, Egypt and Fiji facilitated the consultations.]

21 representatives of women’s and community groups from Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Kiribati, Cook Islands, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and Australia shared testimonies, which were grouped under the five themes of:

  • Violence against Women and the Right to Housing
  • Indigenous Land Rights and Rights to Natural Resources
  • Discrimination and segregation in eviction and housing
  • Legal, customary and religious practices as obstacles to land inheritance and property
  • Housing, land and property rights of women in urban areas

Five key regional issues from the Pacific in relation to rights to land and housing that emerged from the training and the testimonies at the consultations were:

§ The lack of equal participation of women in decision-making processes at all levels, that are relevant to the rights to adequate housing and land. This is reinforced by traditional and religious practices norms that give supremacy to men and therefore omit women from decision-making forums. As a result, women are also absent from the processes where government policies on land and housing are developed. The lack of participation in decision-making is due to the lack of understanding and realisation of women’s capacity to play a role in decision-making as well.

Sussana of Fiji shared that women cannot own clan land, and without the approval of her father (who is the clan leader) and the other clan chiefs, (i.e. other male members of the family), she cannot access the land to build a house or make garden. She was given some land but it was stony and located far away from the village. As a woman she is not expected to challenge this.

§ The perpetuation of patriarchal cultures and systems that discriminate against and oppress women in custom, in religion, in the family and in the community. These are reflected strongly in inheritance systems which commonly directly discriminate against women. The patriarchal structures and the unequal power relationships between men and women are reinforced with different forms of violence against women. The patriarchal values and systems are further reflected in State institutions, which work to limit women’s access to redress.

“In Vanuatu, when a woman marries she goes to her husband’s place. Any orders for land or housing against the husband (even in situations of domestic violence) are met with very aggressive behaviour because the common view is that it is his clan’s land and she is living on his clan’s land, and there is no shared ownership;” (Merilyn Tahi, Vanuatu)

§ As a result of intersectional discrimination, specific groups of women, particularly lesbian women, women with disability, Indigenous women and ethnic women are vulnerable to violations of their rights to adequate housing and land.

“We heard the story of Dulcie an aboriginal woman from Australia who had lived in Darwin her whole life. She had a Housing Commission house for nearly 19 years. One time she injured her neck and leg and went to hospital. Some of her family came to look after her kids who were staying in the house. But they made a lot of noise and everyone got kicked out. She was in the hospital at the time and wasn’t told. When she came home from hospital her children and family weren’t there and she no longer had her home. (Dulcie Malimara, Uinawinga Project, provided by Stella Simmering, Australia)

We heard the following testimony from a lesbian woman in Fiji “My partner and I have moved three times in the past year. I was living with my extended family, but was forced to move as some members of the family were verbally abusive (drinking outside my living area and shouting insults). They even broke into my home. We then moved in with my partner’s family …but the male members of the household became increasingly silent, uncooperative and then hostile to both her and myself. Meanwhile, we tried to get rental accommodation in Suva. I inspected a property and they agreed, but when my partner arrived to inspect, they suddenly declined. When I questioned them, they said that the property was no longer for rent or they had decided to live in it themselves (I then saw it advertised a month later). This has also been the experience of other lesbians in Suva.” (Noelene Nabulivou, Fiji)

§ Customary laws and civil laws that perpetuate gender discrimination, leave women limited spaces to challenge the discrimination and seek redress. There is also substantial confusion created as a result of conflicts between customary law, legislation and constitutions, as well as conflicts within constitutions and conflicts between domestic customs and laws and international human rights. For example some constitutions protect both customary laws relating to land as well as gender equality. In light of such conflicts in the law, politicians, judges and others enacting and interpreting these laws often fall back on cultural norms that may discriminate against women. The policies of donors and regional bodies (i.e. Asian Development Bank) are also often inconsistent with international laws and standards of non-discrimination.

§ The retrogression in women’s enjoyment of housing and land rights. This has occurred particularly in emerging areas such as mixed marriages (i.e. inter-marriages between matrilineal and patrilineal systems is resulting in gaps), as well as a result of feminisation of poverty (where women are forced to consistently live in poor conditions, that is also form of violence), armed conflict, violence against women, development (rights of traditional land owners are being eroded by settler communities and multi-national corporations) and most importantly, as a result of the increasing population, migration, urbanisation, overcrowding and reduced availability of land. Critically, the lack of accountability of State actions and the donor approach to only intervene for limited periods on issues that are “the flavour of the month”, do not assist to ensure adequate measures are put in place that will prevent the retrogression.

“A woman in PNG left her remote community because she was transferred from local authorities to the larger town hospital because the disease could not be attended to in the rural health centre. She stayed in hospital and then had to return home by boat. She had no money to return so asked to live with her relatives, who were an hour away from hospital. There she was raped by people of her own tribe.” (Case provided by Elizabeth Tongne, Papua New Guinea)

Throughout the consultations participants continued to share examples of strategies that had been effectively used in the Pacific, as well as identify further strategies for the local, national, regional and international level that can be used to advance women’s rights to adequate housing and land.

Specific recommendations were also made to the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing including:

  • Address women’s equal rights to inheritance as a critical element of women’s rights to adequate housing and land;
  • Recommend to States to review laws, practices of the formal legal systems and practices of the customary systems that deny women equal rights to adequate housing, land and inheritance, and resolve any conflicts; and
  • Recommend to donors to implement gender policies that will ensure women’s rights to adequate housing and land are protected; and to review policies and guidelines to ensure they don’t have a negative impact on indigenous women and their rights to adequate housing and land.

The experiences of the women from the Pacific, and Merilyn Tahi of Vanuatu will speak more about this in her presentation, demonstrate the need for the recommendations in the Special Rapporteur’s 2005 report on women and adequate housing to be attended to by States and UN bodies with seriousness and urgency. Most critically, the need to address women’s rights to adequate housing, land, inheritance and property in an indivisible manner, and to ensure that serious efforts are made by States to prevent discriminatory cultural, traditional and religious practices from disenfranchising women from these rights.

Women of the Pacific Islands Nations face unique problems arising from their specific geographic, social, economic and political contexts, which to date have not been widely understood at the international level. The relative physical isolation of the Pacific Island nations has meant that they have had limited opportunities to engage with the United Nations system, including the Commission on Human Rights. The occasion of the Pacific consultations was one of the rare times a Special Rapporteur has visited the Pacific, and in the astounding absence of Pacific government and non-governmental representatives in the UN Commission on Human Rights, it is fundamental that special efforts be made to ensure that more thematic special rapporteurs have the opportunity and support to participate in country missions and regional events in the Pacific region. Women in the Pacific have expressed this as being essential to ensuring that their issues are actually raised and addressed within the Commission on Human Rights.

The objectives of the consultation were:

  • To examine the contexts and obstacles for women’s rights to land and adequate housing in order to promote substantive equality for women and thereby inform the normative content of the right to adequate housing;
  • To enable participants to articulate within the human rights framework cases of discrimination against women in relation to land and housing, in the context of poverty and livelihood, land use, property and inheritance issues, globalization, development, fundamentalisms, militarisation, and intersectional discrimination;
  • To examine issues of state and non-state actors’ accountability with respect to women’s rights to land and adequate housing;
  • To exchange approaches and strategies so as to strengthen women’s groups working on women’s rights to land and adequate housing; and
  • To provide preliminary findings and recommendations for the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing (SRAH) for 2005 on women and land and housing, state accountability and strategies for follow-up.

To meet these objectives, the consultation was structured in two sections:

1) Training on methodologies for monitoring and implementing women’s right to adequate housing (2 days);

2) Presentation of personal testimonies of housing rights violations to the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing (2 days) (See Annex G for the Agenda)

Through the training participants were introduced to the work of the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and a range of other UN mechanisms (e.g. NGO parallel reporting, intercessional treaty body mechanisms), that can be used to enforce human rights standards. The training was based on the Habitat International Coalition – Housing and Land Rights Network (HIC-HLRN) Tool Kit (and Loss Matrix), which provides a general framework for monitoring and advocating women’s rights to adequate housing. The tool kit also guided the development of strategies necessary to address the violations of women’s rights to adequate housing. Within this framework, participants also contextualised the elements of the right to adequate housing in the Pacific region, focusing on how the discrimination against women specifically manifested, what were the sources of discriminations and possible measures/remedies. Participants explored the different models of equality, and deepened their understanding of the substantive equality model applied in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which ensures both de jure and de facto equality (i.e. prohibiting gender discrimination in both purpose and effect). Participants were introduced to the concept of intersectional discrimination, which recognises that two or more forms of discrimination may combine to create new forms of discrimination against women. They examined how women experience this as a result of the compounded discrimination they face on the grounds of gender along with other grounds such as race, disability, age, ethnicity, caste, sexual orientation and so on. Participants used the structure of the tool kit, and the principles of substantive equality and intersectional discrimination to develop and present their testimonies to the SRAH.