Before the formal WUF events began, the Gender Equality Action Assembly was held on March 19-20 with the objective of assessing progress of the Gender Equality Action Plan (GEAP) 2008-2013, as developed by UN Habitat and various partners. A series of plenary and workshop sessions on various topics concerning gender and urban issues were held with discussion panels made up mostly of UN Habitat representatives, government officials, and other professionals with few grassroots women. The Assembly was open to all WUF participants with special invitations given to GEAP partners, women ministers, mayors, parliamentarian, women’s organizations, academia, and representatives of other UN agencies. Due to the fact that most of these sessions were held simultaneously, some general highlights and observations from just a few of the sessions are noted here below.
Ms. Charlotte Thibault, from the Conseil des Montréalaises (Montreal Women’s Council) in Canada, spoke of the best practice received for their active advocacy role which led them to be included in the Montreal City Charter as a permanent structure of the city. The Conseil des Montrealaises is guaranteed a permanent budget as part of the city’s budget and contributes to equality policies between men and women by producing reports, disaggregating data by sex, producing a guide to women’s participation and representing their issues at various conferences.
Ms. Angela Fontes from UNIFEM in Brazil analyzed the level of women’s participation in local governments. In the last round of elections, women made up the majority of voters, however municipalities failed to reach the 30% quota of women in elected positions. She questioned why more women are not voting for women, however did not present data on how many women candidates there were in the race. She also mentioned that although there have been increasing numbers of women elected in local governments, there has been little progress towards gender equality. It is clear in this analysis that reaching a quota of women elected into political decision-making positions is not enough to progress towards gender equality. While it is important to monitor the number of women who hold positions with decision-making power, it is equally important to continue challenging gender roles and norms in order to fully achieve gender equality. Unfortunately, the latter was completely missing from this debate.
Ms. Victoria Riccardi from COHRE-Americas, spoke of the link between women’s access to housing and gender violence in precarious settlements. She presented the findings from her research that point to the inadequate housing conditions which contribute to increased violence as well as the lack of access to housing that increases the risk of experiencing violence. Housing policies must take into account these two issues. In Latin American, there is a lack of data on women’s inequalities in gaining land and housing ownership and access. Different types of violence must be distinguished (ie. economic, domestic). The normative content of the right to the city needs to be reformed because it is gender neutral. Policies that target decreasing the incident and threat of violence need to be structured in terms of long-term impacts.
Ms. Mervant Tallawy, ESCWA Executive Secretary, spoke of the lack of planners’ understanding and information on gender differentiations and pointed to the role needed from social organizations to initiate awareness campaigns and change mindsets about gender norms and roles. She noted that the economic power of a country ultimately suffers when there is no clear social policy that protects all groups of a population. An analysis of the social impacts of economic policies is needed and the government, general public and the media all need to take up discussions about strengthening social protection.
Ms. Eun hee Cho from the Seoul Metropolitan Government spoke of the Happy City program, a public-private partnership to promote gender equality in the city through a concrete method of a gender-budgeting system. Included in this system is a gender-based policy with programs on transportation, city administration, environment, education, and work. As part of a gender mainstreaming process, each municipal department must propose a gendered plan of action, with the overall objective of making women-friendly cities. In terms of confronting gender violence, the Happy City program has a two-step approach: first a temporary shelter, and then providing housing with employment training. Another part of the Happy City program is the Happy Mom program, which focuses on working mothers having more secure employment through the economic crisis, however at no point did this discussion take into account men’s roles as working fathers and their childcare responsibilities.
Ms. Francine Senécal from Métropolis added to the discussion to remind everyone that creating happy cities for all is not only about including women, but other marginalized groups of people as well. It is important to realize that while there may be a gendered budget as part of the city of Montreal, more concrete advancements should have already been made towards gender equality in the city. Comprehensive health care policies need to be developed, as women tend to compensate in their unpaid labour for the care of their families when there is a lack of health care services available to all members of society. This ultimately impacts their opportunities for full employment.
Overall in the Gender Equality Action Assembly, there was a limited discussion on the panels of the social construction of gender and of challenging gender norms and roles. As such, debates tended not to focus on root causes of gender inequalities and concentrated on ensuring women´s access to services, monitoring data and figures, and the planning and governing of cities which fundamentally maintain unequal systems of power. While there was some discussion on the former, it never took the focus of debate and was therefore not included in any recommendations which resulted from the discussion.