Air Date: July 16, 1996||
Achola Pala Okeyo, UNIFEM
Bella Abzug, Women’s Environment and Development
Diana Lee Smith, Masingari Institute, Kenya
Gertrude Mongella, Secretary-General,
Fourth World Conference on Women
Lalita Krishnaswami, Self-Employed Women’s Association, India
Other participants at the UN Conference on Human Settlements in Turkey
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the
people who shape events.
LALITA KRISHNASWAMI: My name is Lalita Krishnaswami. I am the vice president of the
Self-Employed Women’s Association, SEWA.
DIANA LEE SMITH: My name is Diana Lee Smith. I am part of the Women and Shelter Network,
which is a worldwide international coalition of organizations that work with poor women in slums
and squatter’s settlements across the world.
GERTRUDE MONGELLA: I am Gertrude Mongella, the secretary-general for the Fourth World
Conference on Women.
DAVIDSON: Most of the world’s homeless are women and children. Every day some 50,000
people, again mostly women and children, die as a result of poor shelter, polluted water, and
inadequate sanitation. On this edition of Common Ground we continue our coverage of the
United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, with a focus on the women working to build homes
and communities around the world. Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m
Mary Gray Davidson.
[music] This women’s quartet from Turkey entertained at just one of the hundreds of events held
this June during the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul. But women were
anything but background at Habitat II, as this world gathering was commonly known. Since the
United Nations Environment and Development Conference in Rio a few years ago, women’s groups from
around the world have been pushing for a gender perspective as the male-dominated government
delegations set international policy. Bella Abzug is a former member of the US Congress and now
cochair of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, which was formed because little
attention was paid to women in the document prepared for the Rio Summit in 1992. Abzug says women
are the conscience of these international meetings.
BELLA ABZUG: We have made a serious inroad. Before we got into it, documents rarely
discussed things in terms of gender discrimination. They rarely discussed important issues of
sexual and reproductive health. They never really discussed the unpaid work of women and how to
measure that in terms of national accounts, and so on. They never really dealt with the right,
passionately, of women to credit with our collateral in order to create a productivity that they
could engage in, own land, and have a right to an inheritance.
There’s now a very accepted view that women must be part of the decision making and the design
from the beginning to the end, as in Habitat. It’s not enough to say that we want a roof over our
heads. What does that shelter mean? It means the right to be protected against economic
insecurity, the right to be protected against discrimination, the right to have a decent
environment, the right to decent schools, the right to decent water, and the right to decent
conditions. Women are projecting that, you see. We used to be global housekeepers. We’re now
keepers of the flame and the home. That’s what’s going on. Now we’ve had a terrific input. I
think we have to keep it up, because there’s a tendency to sort of forget. Until women have
50-50, 50 percent of the decision making on every level of government and in the private sector,
until we have a much larger share (if not 50 percent of the resources), we’re going to have to
continue to push. And we’re doing it.
DAVIDSON: How is Habitat important to American women in particular?
ABZUG: Habitat deals with a fundamental question for every woman, everywhere—the right
to housing, the right to have it is a fundamental right, and the right not to be evicted
illegally (particularly if you are poor). It does deal with shelter in a much larger sense as far
as women are concerned; that is, what role will you play in designing the place you are going to
have to live and raise your family? Women want a safe home. How safe will you make it? How
protected will you make it in the environment, which women are very concerned with in the United
States? What kind of schools? What kind of transportation? All of this affects women directly in
every single country, including the United States.
DAVIDSON: The United Nations held the first Habitat conference 20 years ago. This year
the world community decided it was time to meet once again to consider how everyone can have
adequate shelter and how to ensure livable communities. Two-thirds of the world’s people are
expected to be living in cities just 25 years from now. And women, young and old, are leaving
rural areas in large numbers, says Achola Pala Okeyo, head of the delegation from the United
Nations Development Fund for Women. They go to the cities for a variety of reasons: war and
poverty, but always they are expecting a better life.
ACHOLA OKEYO: For example, in the Latin American countries that we work in, we know that
in a country like Brazil something like 60 percent of domestic workers in the city are women.
These women are coming from the countryside to work in the cities. They often live under very
difficult conditions. They live in the parts of the city that are very poor neighborhoods that
are crime-ridden, have a lot of violence, have very poor water, and have tremendous problems for
their own children.
DAVIDSON: Are the women leaving the rural areas because there’s no traditional work left?
OKEYO: This is the thing. I think there’s a combination. The whole exodus from rural areas
to the cities is part perception, but part is a reality. The reality is that when you look at the
ratio of doctors, for example, to the populations in the city, virtually every country shows more
doctors, more professionals, and more clinics, in the city than in the countryside. So that
people living in the rural areas feel that if they are in the city they’ll have better access. Of
course, when they come is when they realize that there’s also the structure of the city that has
its own class dimension. You can’t just go in and live in the best of all places. However…
DAVIDSON: …and get the services…
OKEYO: …and get the services. However, there is evidence that even in the poorer areas
the women can walk to clinics and get some kind of help. Or they can organize themselves and take
advantage of the new technologies, like to go and present their case to the mayor or mobilize
around their area and change the situation that is not good. They can have schools there.
Therefore, I think the perception is that if you go to the city things will be better. Of course,
they are not always better; and you are not always getting the services. But that’s one part of
the exodus. The other part is that you really have a tremendous feminization of poverty. Rural
poverty is increasing. And when people can escape into the cities they try to do so. The other
thing that is pushing women more into the cities is that you have a few more women who are
educated than before. As the levels of literacy increase and people search for employment in the
cities, more and more women will be going.
What we are finding also is that the majority of poor women in the cities are female household
heads, which puts tremendous burden on them; because they have to earn a living for their
families. If they live in the poor areas of the cities, they have a lot of difficulty because it
has a repercussion on the health of their children, access to food security, and the health of
their families and their own communities.
DAVIDSON: Another factor that often drives women from their homes is violence. Suzanne
Evening, a member of the delegation from Fiji and the Grassroots Women’s Network in the South
Pacific, says they’re working to change traditional attitudes about violence that takes place at
EVENING: When we say domestic violence, they are looking at it as something which is
nobody else’s business. Now we are trying to say, it’s not violence against women anymore, it’s
DAVIDSON: It doesn’t matter by whom. It’s violence.
EVENING: It’s violence. It doesn’t matter who does it.
DAVIDSON: Is there a problem for women who try to escape the violence in getting shelter?
EVENING: Yes. Because many women don’t like to leave their homes, because they have
nowhere else to go. They either go and stay with somebody else, which will be another burden to
that place. So they would rather stay and try to tell whoever is doing the violence that it’s not
right to do violence.
DAVIDSON: Are there other problems of shelter for women in the South Pacific, Fiji in
EVENING: Yes. In the cities people are coming from the rural areas, which they already
have homes there. Leaving their homes and coming to the urban areas is a problem, which they have
to come and look for shelter. They are either squatters or depend on their extended families. Or
they are paying a very big amount of rent, which they really can’t afford.
DAVIDSON: Women and men have different but equally important roles and responsibilities
in society. Women’s contributions, however, are often not equally valued or even recognized.
Gertrude Mongella was secretary-general of the Fourth World Conference on Women last year in
Beijing, China. Even though women head an estimated third of the households in the world,
Mongella says women get the responsibilities of the household but not the rights.
MONGELLA: Because they have participated in contributing to the building of homes in all
its ramifications, but at the same time they have been the most marginalized, even in their own
marital homes. So we have to look into this issue. The other thing is, the women have been
contributing in terms of their unpaid labor, which is a gift to their families and which enables
other people to construct settlements.
DAVIDSON: What kind of labor are you talking about, when you talk about women’s unpaid
MONGELLA: I’m talking about even cleaning the settlements. The women do a lot of the
cleaning. Keeping it clean and throwing away the damages other people do—the industrial damage
which is done in the settlements. The women do it. They take care of the people who live in these
settlements; but they have not been given their due consideration, not even in designing the
homes they live in. Habitat II is very important, particularly after Beijing. In Beijing we did
get the mileage to the advancement of women, to the equality of women in development in the
world, but we need the strong results of Habitat to be able to ensure the empowerment of
women—economic empowerment and political participation. We cannot as women hope to be equal,
hope to participate in all the decision making, if we don’t have homes or if our settlements are
not conducive to the working conditions of women and to the eradication of violence against
DAVIDSON: What do you see as the next step now for women after Habitat?
MONGELLA: The most important thing is that I don’t want to see women as victims when it
comes to the question of habitat and the settlements. I want to see women’s talents—women’s
capacity, women’s decisions—being brought in in the settlement areas. If women had to plan the
settlements, it would be a different world altogether. I couldn’t imagine myself planning a
school away from my residential area, because I have gone through (as a parent and as a mother)
working and running to pick kids up from school and running back to the office. I have gone
through the headache of commuting when I have babies to breast-feed. So I wouldn’t plan the
workplace to be very far away from the residential areas. I would make a settlement which has a
combination of satellites of cities within one big city, where at least people can live
comfortably working and doing all the activities in almost the same areas. That would be my
vision of a settlement. I would also give more land for play for the children, because it’s such
a trauma for a mother to have to deal with babies in a very congested apartment where you cannot
let the kids run around and do whatever they want to do.
[Woman singing. …for women everywhere: equality, development, and peace…]
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause for a short break. When we return we’ll continue our coverage of
women’s participation at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements held this June in
Istanbul, Turkey. You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation.
Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the
broadcast for details on how to order, or for information about the Stanley Foundation, a
nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke
thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Sometimes it is tradition that makes women homeless, or at least without proper housing. In many
countries women are not allowed to own land or inherit it, even from their husbands or fathers.
And we live in a world where ownership is key to power and status. We also live in a world where
women are more than half the population, yet own less than one percent of its wealth. Diana Lee
Smith is with the Masangari Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and part of the Women and Shelter
Network, which works with poor women in squatter settlements.
SMITH: Despite women being in charge of the home and managing it, they have no equal
rights to inherit land and property as men do. In the Third World countries, where custom
prevails, land and property are only inherited by the boys from their parents. So the girls are
dispossessed. As you move into a money economy, with this tradition girls are pauperized, because
they do not inherit a saleable commodity-land. Worse than that, if a girl is born into one of
these families and she does not marry a man with land or doesn’t marry a man at all, she has
children and her children are automatically homeless. They have no rights. This is a very
important issue. They are forced into urban poor settlements.
DAVIDSON: Earlier today you were talking about the feminization of poverty and the lack
of inheritance rights being the true root cause of that.
SMITH: Yes. Obviously, if you move into commodity relations or money relations from a
customary life based on the family, then land becomes saleable. So men inherit capital; women
inherit nothing. That is the cause of the feminization of poverty in my opinion, which people are
not aware of. They talk about income-generating projects, and they talk about enabling women to
buy land. But why the hell should women have to buy land when men get it free?
DAVIDSON: Do you have any idea what percentage of the world does not allow women to
SMITH: Certainly all of sub-Saharan African, a lot of Asia, and a lot of Latin America.
So you’re talking about a lot of poor women. Understanding the cause of that, the basis of that,
is unequal rights to inherit property-housing and land. This is what we’re trying to address. We
are shocked, really shocked, in our network. There is not one single government in conference
that was willing to stand up and put forward, even put forward for consideration, this word
“equal.” They are afraid to do that, because UNESCO has decided in a meeting in Paris that they
do not want to offend tradition. There is opposition from the Islamic governments, and we
understand that. We are discussing that with the Islamic communities, because the Koran allocates
a certain proportion of land to women.
In my country where I live in Kenya, in fact women convert to Islam in order to inherit property
in urban areas. Islam does recognize inheritance rights for women, and they give women that
status. We are fighting for equal rights on the principle of the international human rights
conventions, because we believe women and men are equal human beings. We know it’s a difficult
issue for Islam, because it’s their holy book and it is given by God (this ruling about who
inherits how much property). Nevertheless, we want to open up this debate about whether men and
women are both human beings, and why women are only considered a function of men; that is, they
are dependents of men. We understand how this arose in history and arose in the Koran, but we
still want to debate and question it.
DAVIDSON: Increasingly, women throughout the world have the dual responsibilities of both
reproduction and economic production for their own and their family’s survival. Yet their
responsibilities at home often prevent them from going out to find work. The Self-Employed
Women’s Association of India (known as SEWA) has built around the theme “My Home, My Workplace”
says Lalita Krishnaswami, SEWA’s vice president. SEWA has been in existence since 1972,
organizing the poorest women of India into unions and cooperatives with over 220,000 members
KRISHNASWAMI: We are working in the informal sector. In the informal sector, women are
working. Either they are doing embroidery at home, or they are using a hand loom (generally
making cloth), or they are making yarn, or they are making incense sticks, or they are small
vegetable vendors, or they are hawkers to supplement their income. Some of them are even heads of
households. They are working. They are not recognized as workers. That is the important thing
which SEWA is trying to do, to say that these self-employed are workers and contribute to the
economy. Therefore, it is very important that when they are working that income which is
generated should be in the hands of women. Therefore, where should they keep their money? So the
women got together and formed the bank where they could have access to credit, where they could
keep their income, and where they could get loans to enhance their business enterprises.
DAVIDSON: Do you have any sense of what percentage of women in India are the heads of
KRISHNASWAMI: The general survey which SEWA has done found that at least 26 percent of
the women are heads of households. I’d like to say one thing for Habitat, and that is that we
demand that women should be considered important. Important for financing for housing, because
that is building the asset. When it builds the asset, they have security. When the security is
there, the productivity is better. Therefore, it is very important that women have access to
finance and are also able to form their own financial organizations in terms of cooperatives
where the investment is made in them and they are able to invest in their own homes. Suppose in
their homes that the water is seeping through from the roof. They don’t have a window; it’s a mud
floor. And if you invest in the house, if the loans are given for the house, then better the
For example, a hand loom weaver could not weave properly, because the water seeped from the
floor. The yarn got wet and the product got bad. The rains came, and they were not able to even
live properly. When the money was given to build, she built her a brick, thatched roof home. She
made the room with a cement floor, and even the loom was kept in proper balance. The seepage from
the floor stopped, so her product was better and she had a higher income. She was able to make a
toilet, which to have your own toilet is a very important thing. Adding facilities to the home is
also enhancing the income and better quality of life. It is not only a consumption loan, but it
is a productive asset. We consider a home so women who sit at home and work, who are
self-employed, as a very important place where they can store, make their things, and also sell
DAVIDSON: Maybe the United States can learn something from the women of SEWA, says Jan
Peterson, who is the American chair of the Women, Homes and Communities SuperCoalition at Habitat
PETERSON: Today somebody was raising the whole issue of ownership of land, housing, and
credit. If you look at it here, obviously, women can own land. If you are the poorest group, with
our feminization of poverty, the fact is you can’t get credit from the bank. So when you think
about the fact that there are groups in India, as we heard before, like SEWA or the Working
Women’s Forum, that have 200,000-400,000 members running their own savings clubs, credit unions,
and banks, and these are the poorest of the women, who are illiterate, it might give you the idea
that maybe poor women in the United States could form small groups, savings clubs, and credit
unions and banks and create a more focused economic base.
Because even the policies of the Ford Foundation and our big funders are into these CDCs, the big
Community Development Corporations. They are focusing on a certain kind of path, that is very big
on housing and community development, but women don’t have a voice in that. There may be women
there, and they use women as clients, but not women in terms of women owning, controlling, and
running their own institutions. Almost no consciousness in gender again. There are a lot of
issues that the women are focusing on here. Of course, we are coming here at a time when our
whole domestic policy is in shambles. Dole is running for president saying that public housing is
the last bastion of socialism. We have public housing women leaders here and presidents of tenant
associations who can begin to see a vision of running and operating their own public housing.
DAVIDSON: Why do you think there isn’t this gender consciousness in US policy debates?
PETERSON: Actually, it’s been fascinating to me, because the country that led the
development of women’s perspective in terms of development was the United States. It was Charles
Percy in 1972 that passed the bill that required all of our foreign money, USAID money and other
monies that go abroad, to be reviewed in terms of how that money impacted on women.
DAVIDSON: Charles Percy, the Republican senator from Illinois?
PETERSON: Yes. Think about it. So we have had a split, schizophrenic policy direction in
our own country. Internationally, in developing countries, we foster a woman’s perspective and
look at poor women as leaders capable of running and operating organizations. In fact, we forced
countries that were not dealing with women leaders to begin to look at women as treasures and
activists and partners. In our own country we get to the domestic, there is no gender at all. We
focus all of our issues around poor women into this welfare reform consciousness, which means
that we look at poor women as clients and problems and needing social workers. What do we call
it? Case management, to move from poverty to self-sufficiency, which is half the rhetoric of the
time; instead of remembering that every day almost every poor community in this country, the last
remnants of it, is held together by all those women that are tenant leaders. PTA presidents. All
these people are the army of who is holding it together. We do a very contradictory thing, not
only by not looking at development from a woman’s perspective in HUD but by seeing welfare reform
as an individualistic up and out form of moving poor women, instead of looking at women as
leaders and helping them build their own community organizations—being able to run and operate
it and stay and anchor those communities—instead of “Now I got my money, I run,” which has been
the American way. One is that we don’t have a clear idea of how we look at poverty and community
development. We foster both. We are going to move women up and out, but we are going to look at
community development and really understand the leadership structures of communities and
DAVIDSON: Gloria Thurman hasn’t abandoned the housing project she lives in in Washington,
DC. It was a long journey for Thurman from the Highland Addition housing project, but she said
she learned in Istanbul that the problems of public housing are universal. Thurman traveled to
Istanbul as a delegation member from the International Women’s Democracy Center, and she was able
to share what works in her community with activists from around the world.
THURMAN: We offer training in leadership, conflict resolution, and stress management. We
deal with everything that we think they will come up against. A lot of times that includes job
sharing programs; that includes skill transfer programs. It opens an opportunity for them to rise
from where they are. Maybe they finished school, and they want further education. Maybe they know
how to type, but they want to learn how to do computers. As a result of them helping to build
their communities, we help build their personal lives and get them more involved in policymaking
that will affect their lives and their families.
This opportunity is one of such magnitude it’s hard to express what we learned and what we feel
we have to share, not just in coming here but with the jewels that we are going to carry back to
our community. You often hear people say, “Diamonds in the rough.” Well, these diamonds have been
fine-tuned, and we’re ready to meet our full potential.
DAVIDSON: In our next program in this series about the United Nations Conference on Human
Settlements, we’ll visit the host country of Turkey and look at Istanbul as a case study of
urbanization. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
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Copyright © 1996,
The Stanley Foundation