• Tuesday, September 30, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Toward a More Inclusive Urban Development – One Woman at a Time

    Meeting on community resilience in Manila

    By Kim-Jenna Jurriaans

    Today, more than half the world lives in cities. Pushed by the loss of livelihoods in rural areas, and lured by the prospect of a better future for themselves and their families, an estimated three million people migrate to urban areas in the developing world each week. While cities have taken a number of innovative steps to address issues of growth and development, from modern architecture to green design, such capital-driven initiatives rarely benefit those in the most underserved communities in the urban context. In addition, development efforts often fail to recognize the unique challenges faced by women, who make up two thirds of the urban poor.

    Women not only encounter the harsh reality of informal-sector jobs, inadequate government services, and poor sanitation, they also face the added threats of sexual violence and insecurity of land and housing tenure. Women in developing countries bear the brunt of often-violent evictions of informal urban settlements and are twice as vulnerable to sexual violence as men. What’s more, they are more likely to become infected with HIV/AIDS, especially amidst a global financial crisis that increases economic need and riskier sexual behavior. Unscrupulous landlords forcing female tenants into sex as rent payments is common practice in this context. When family members fall ill, the burden of primary care, in turn, falls on women in the household and community.

    But women are also incredibly resilient. They build communities and businesses, they lobby local government for services and take initiative to improve their daily realities where the state is failing to do so. Together, they claim women’s rights to the city – and in doing so, improve conditions for the most disadvantaged communities of developing nations. It is here that the real urban innovation takes shape. “When you invest in women, you can be sure they are not just going spend resources on themselves, but on their families and their communities,” says Janice Peterson, co-founder of the Huairou Commission and GROOTS International, two global networks connecting women’s organizations across five continents. “The potential development impact is enormous.”

    Women’s groups supported by the Huairou Commission in three different cities demonstrate how building women’s capacity to effect positive change sets in motion a virtuous cycle of sustainable urban development. Two of the cities – Pushchino in Russia, and Livingston in Guatemala – were recently chosen to become part of the 100 Cities Initiative of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, which celebrates innovative approaches to sustainable urban development. The Philippine capital of Manila offers an additional case study in how grassroots women-led approaches to urban development are both unique and sustainable.

    From local practice to state-wide model – Livingston, Guatemala

    In the Guatemalan city of Livingston, the Network of Women Human Rights Promoters serves as a model for sustainable women’s development. Here, the key approach involves building the capacity of women to engage with local and state government, creating a space where women’s needs can be better identified and addressed through public services and education.

    The Network began six years ago when the NGO Fundación Guatemala, recognizing the need to support women in the urban context, expanded its work with rural women to the city of Livingston, the capital of the state Izabal. Thirty women of the four main ethnic and cultural groups in the area –Garífuna, Mayan, Indian and Ladino – engaged in a series of workshops on national and international gender and human rights legislation, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Graduates of the workshops went on to create both the Network of Women Human Rights Promoters and the HIV/AIDS self-help group New Life. In a cultural context where property tenure is insecure and where talking about sex is taboo, these groups work to protect women’s rights by educating them on official procedures for land tenure and the importance of safer sex practices.

    “Because of the war, we have seen a lot of problems with land and property titles,” says Maite Rodriguez, Program Coordinator for Fundación Guatemala. “In the Garifuna community, for a long time, property was inherited from women to women. But they didn’t transfer papers, because they were thinking in communal terms. When capitalism came, so did the patriarchy – increasingly men are taking over the land.”

    To consolidate their political power, Livingston women began a relationship with the local Office of Women’s Affairs in the municipal government. Together they embarked on a partnership with UN-Habitat’s Safer Cities Initiative, conducting safety audits of Livingston’s streets and neighborhoods and lobbying for increased services in poor communities, more lights, and safe public spaces for women and children to gather.

    A big part of the Network’s success lies in grassroots women’s understanding of political rules and processes and knowing how to find empowerment in decentralized government structures. “We’ve noticed from international exchanges with other women in Latin America that many see state processes as something outside themselves,” says Rodriguez. “Women here know how and who to ask for what they need.”

    Encouraged by the progressive force of the Network and New Life, the governor of the State of Izabal called on the women of Livingston to lead an effort to bring together women’s affairs offices and civic society groups across Izabal state and create a common women’s agenda. When presenting the new statewide program for women’s empowerment to President Alvaro Colom on his visit to the state in May of 2010, he highlighted the collaboration with grassroots women as integral to this achievement.
    “Relationships with local government are really easy right now, because we have standing with the governor,” says Rodriguez. “Livingston is very different now than six years ago. It has become the first municipality in the country with a Department of Women’s Affairs, with its own budget, and is leading as an example for other municipalities to give women’s affairs offices direct access to funds for development projects.”

    Negotiating for a more just city — Manila

    In Manila, the most densely populated city in the world, access to adequate housing is a primary challenge facing the urban poor. Since 1986, a federation of 33,000 low-income women known as DAMPA has focused on fighting the forced evictions of informal

    A slum community in Cebu CIty, Phillipines.

    settlements and negotiating with local government for collaborative relocations closer to residents’ sources of income. In addition, DAMPA has brought together 110 community organizations across Manila and the surrounding area to pool resources for land-acquisition projects and community mortgages. “We negotiate directly with landowners, which cuts down costs and avoids the longer procedures of government-run acquisition projects,” explains Femie Duka, Secretary General of DAMPA. Through monthly community collections, DAMPA pays off its mortgages within five years. “In addition, when relocation of communities is necessary the government presents us with alternative locations and we decide on a location depending on that community’s needs.”

    DAMPA has also been active in expanding health services for urban women, including HIV and cancer screenings. As a result of the organization’s lobbying, doctors now come into the communities on a monthly basis, instead of residents having to travel long distances for care, which also increases the number of children getting vaccinated.

    With its finger on the pulse of the community, DAMPA is able to address new challenges as they emerge.  “In our recent community mapping exercise we discovered that a lot of teenagers are trying to earn money and are selling their bodies because of it,” says Duka. “As a response, we are working on an HIV/AIDS campaign that we hope to launch by the end of the year.”

    In Pushchino, no opportunities gone to waste

    The fall of the Soviet Union left many cities in Russia facing financial crisis and poor physical conditions, pushing many state responsibilities to local governments and citizens, without funding to match. Since 1990, women’s groups like the Information Center for the Independent Women’s Forum (ICIWF) in Pushchino have been defining the new culture of democratic engagement in a decentralized Russia.

    Today, what started as a small initiative led by local women and schools to create a system of compostable waste management in their neighborhood is now a bona fide city-wide system of smart garbage collection that has brought down costs and made ICIWF a recognized entity in City Hall. Working from the idea that neighborhood engagement in community transformation increases ownership and responsibility for public spaces, the group brings together residents, schoolchildren, local scientists and the business community to increase the safety and appeal of local parks and playgrounds, as well as big apartment buildings that attracted crime.

    “So much of women and sustainable development has to do with safety,” says Janice Peterson. “How much money and development capacity is lost if women cannot be outside at night, if they can’t move and interact freely in the urban space?” Participatory tools like community safety assessments are particularly sustainable mechanisms for city development, according to Peterson, because they build on local needs and knowledge and foster the transfer of skills to ever-larger numbers of citizens.
    In Pushchino, women-led safety audits have become the blueprints for increasing security in the city, with a special focus on women and the elderly. Crime rates have gone down in areas where ICIWF has been active, and decaying public spaces like playgrounds have become spaces of civic engagement. Local school children are growing flowers and vegetables for community beautification and to supplement the nutrition of low-income families.

    The Path to Sustainability

    As these three cities demonstrate, women are experts in the needs of their own communities – and uniquely positioned to design and implement sustainable solutions. What makes these initiatives sustainable is that they are constituency-based and organization driven, and rely heavily on bottom-up participatory processes. While investing in women’s leadership on a national political level is important, policy initiatives are bound to fall short of their full potential of women at the community level are not empowered to implement and benefit from these national and international policies. For development to be sustainable, women must be supported to build capacities to engage with local government, and take full advantage of the new spaces for dialogue and innovation created by their efforts.

    It’s a matter of creating new stakeholders, says Maite Rodriguez: “Women used to be non-existent in development. Today, women are in charge of creating the new version of development, one that is inclusive for women, children and men.”

    Kim-Jenna Jurriaans is Communications and Program Associate at the Huairou Commission headquarters in New York City

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