Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women

Women play a crucial role in creating sustainable cities and settlements. Yet before next year’s conference, a challenge remains in defining the agenda for this key constituency.

Young women at a textile store last year in Gao, Mali. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

In recent decades, urbanization has led the way for women’s issues to emerge at the forefront of multilateral and donor agendas. Yet challenges remain as civil society prepares to offer formal input into the process leading up to next year’s Habitat III cities conference and its intended outcome, the New Urban Agenda. One particular challenge is what an agenda for women will look like.

The women’s rights movement of the 1970s made many important gains, though achieved through an individualistic process. During that time, however, space was not made available for poor and working-class women, many of whom depended on a family and community approach to development. These grass-roots women nevertheless came together in groups, focused on strengthening their local community and their roles within it.

Recognizing this, my colleagues and I founded the National Congress of Neighborhood Women in 1975, based in New York. The idea here was that women of all ethnicities could study and work within their own communities, effecting place-based change across the United States for the neighbourhoods and cities they called home.

Ten years later, grass-roots women remained overlooked at the international level by the same women’s movement. At the Third World Conference on Women, held in Nairobi in 1985, high-level panellists once again spoke about the plight of women in poverty — but without seeing those same women as an organized group of local experts or even as possible agents of change.

Frustrated by this trend, we formed GROOTS International that same year, meant to function as a movement of grass-roots women leaders who could speak on their own behalf, both at the local level and in international forums. The strong link we discovered between poor women in the United States and women in developing countries continued to grow, leading to the historic “grass-roots tent” in Huairou, China, outside of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Wally N’Dow was the executive director of UN-Habitat at the time, in the period leading up to the Habitat II “City Summit” that would take place the following year in Istanbul. When N’Dow made a special appearance at our tent, he was so impressed by the organizing achieved by grass-roots women and their partners that he dubbed us the Huairou Commission. In doing so, he recognized the crucial role that women would play in monitoring and implementing sustainable cities and human settlements.

During the preparatory committees leading up to Habitat II, the women’s networks involved in housing and human settlements built off each other’s strengths as a collective. This allowed them to move beyond the traditional priorities of the women’s movement and attain global visibility.

Thus, urban women were able to bring critical demands to the table regarding public space, urban safety, access to education and community infrastructure. Yet forming a “super-coalition” was the only way to ensure that their voices were heard and that their common concerns were considered. Having won the battle to get women into the women’s movement, we were now successfully a part of the human-settlements movement, as well.

Urbanization and inclusion

The Habitat II conference saw unprecedented attention given to women, all because of the efforts of the grass-roots women’s super-coalition. In addition to 133 references to women written into the outcome document, 55 workshops were held on gender-related themes, a women’s caucus emerged and daily debriefings were held to track intergovernmental negotiations. Even childcare was available. Importantly, GROOTS International leaders came from all continents, and our member group even ran the NGO Committee for Turkey.

Overall, the Habitat II Agenda remains one of the strongest outcome documents of any U. N. conference. Emerging themes at the time were critical for women, including the problem of uncoordinated urban development, the lack of employment, the need for health and educational facilities, and insecurity and poverty.

“Apart from naming key issues — housing, infrastructure, public services — it is important that the forthcoming agenda also recognizes the process that goes along with solving these concerns.”

Strikingly, these issues remain prevalent in cities and human settlements today, particularly for women. This is because the Habitat II priorities, though strong on paper, failed to be implemented in practice. This has been a result of changes in leadership, a lack of political will and few resources directed toward UN-Habitat programmes.

We now have a critical opportunity between now and next year’s Habitat III conference. The Habitat Agenda continues to call forth many of the key points that came out of the 1996 conference in Istanbul: Gender-specific poverty remains in urban areas, as does a lack of employment, health services and educational facilities.

Apart from naming key issues — housing, infrastructure, public services — it is important that the forthcoming agenda also recognizes the process that goes along with solving these concerns. For example, are women linked up? Can they meet with other stakeholders? Do they hold institutionalized roles in budgeting, planning boards and other local government activities?

Despite the many challenges, after all, cities are good for women. Urban areas allow for mobility, transport, resources for negating domestic violence, organizing, social support, close proximity to schools. Moreover, in cities women find more opportunities for work and education.

We must take advantage of these opportunities and make sure that the City We Need is a city designed, built and monitored by grass-roots women and organized constituencies working in their own communities.

Partnership mechanisms will be key to attaining this, and these will need to be organized as we move toward Habitat III. Our collective expertise must to be leveraged in order to achieve truly sustainable communities, the backbone of cities and human settlements.

Neighbourhood change

I have integrated my life and neighbourhood into a citywide, national and global struggle for equitable and gender-just spaces, institutions and processes. From this perspective, I identify strongly with the Urban Thinkers Campuses, the dozen-and-a-half recently announced platforms that will offer broad opportunities for input into the Habitat III process. Indeed, I believe these campuses to be revolutionary.

Neighbourhoods likewise offer a potent space to host more of these campuses, where knowledge can be shared among community members. I urge cities to take these on, with or without funding.

In this context, cities should also consider the following questions: What practices are taking place at the local level that are critical for settlements, safety, empowerment and resilience? Who are the stakeholders that could join together and work toward generating innovative change for cities? These conversations, networks and initiatives are how it all started for women in cities, and they remain the ways in which progress will continue in the future.

Ultimately, the drivers of change in cities and human settlements might not be those whom you’d expect. They include grass-roots women, slum dwellers and workers in the informal economy. They are already organizing, mobilizing and implementing transformative development solutions at the city scale.

Further, these constituencies have voices, local expertise and knowledge that we have yet to acknowledge. Yet it is this urban public that will create a paradigm shift in the way we think about and act on urbanization as an ever-increasing trend.

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Jan Peterson

Jan Peterson serves as the chair of the Coordinating Council of the Huairou Commission. Her current role stems from 30 years of working in community development, during which she emerged as a groundbreaking leader in producing innovative community structures led by grass-roots women. Jan was awarded the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor in September 2009 for her work that spans four decades of commitment to improving grass-roots women’s lives globally. In addition to raising more than USD 4 million for work with grass-roots women, Jan has supported pioneering initiatives such as the Grassroots Academies held at each World Urban Forum and the Local to Local Dialogue Process.

In the United States, Jan founded the National Congress of Neighborhood Women and developed a Leadership Support Process to help grass-roots women build leadership while working across ethnic and racial lines. She also ran the National Institute for Women and Community Development and the Neighborhood Women College Program. Jan has taught in the faculty of Adelphi University School of Social Work, the Pratt Institute, LaGuardia Community College and more recently at the New School Graduate Program in International Affairs. Under the Carter administration, she worked as the associate director in the Office of Public Liaison in the White House, as well as the Office of Policy and Planning and Action, with Peace Corps and Vista.