Bridging the GAP: Women have been one of Habitat III’s most active constituencies

Above all, women want to play a bigger role in how cities are planned and managed.

A woman looks out of her home in Pinga, North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, December 2013. (Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo)

This is the third story in an occasional series. The General Assembly of Partners (GAP) is the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 15 constituent groups. Citiscope is profiling these groups about their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

If majority rules, then by rights women should be running the world. With over half of the planet’s population, it would stand to reason that they would occupy a lion’s share of parliamentary seats, ministerial appointments and other positions of power.

But persistent discrimination and cultural attitudes that at times do not see a role for women in public life have kept such demographic inevitabilities in check. According to UN Women, only 22 percent of national parliamentarians were female as of August 2015 — an increase over past figures.

These structural obstacles notwithstanding, at the local level women have proven that they can make a difference, in both the developed and developing worlds. Recent social-science research found that women-led panchayats (local councils) in India resulted in 62 percent more completed drinking-water projects than the achievements of male-led councils, an outcome that researchers attributed specifically to the female presence. In Norway, political scientists say they have proven a causal relationship between women serving on municipal councils and the prevalence of state-sponsored child-care coverage.

These kinds of success stories are what have propelled women to become arguably the most active and vocal constituency in the run-up to Habitat III, the U. N. conference on housing and urban development that will take place this October in Quito, Ecuador. There, national governments plan to adopt the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year set of urbanization guidelines, the details of which are currently under negotiation.

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

Most of humanity now lives in cities, which means that urban neighborhoods are also where the daily battles for women’s rights are playing out. While women, like all urbanites, have a broad interest in sustainable cities, some aspects of city life are uniquely their concern. In today’s urbanizing world, women are fighting for safe public spaces, free from gender-based violence and street harassment. They’re also demanding recognition that domestic tasks such as childrearing deserve to be compensated or offered as a social service.

Above all, women’s advocacy groups wants their gender to play a bigger role in how cities are planned and managed.

“We expect that Habitat III will recognize, resource and institutionalize the role of women, in particular grass-roots women, in sustainable development,” said Katia Araújo, chair of the women’s partner constituent group of the General Assembly of Partners. The conference, she said, should “not just recognize the contributions of women to the development of their own communities, but institutionalize their meaningful, sustained participation in the design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of urban policies and programmes.”

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda fundamentally transform gender relations]

Such goals have drawn a host of NGOs, architects, planners, researchers and policy advocates that focus on women’s rights. One place to start is elected office. At a Habitat III event in January hosted by a Canadian feminist organization, a Vancouver municipal councilor called for gender-based quotas in local government to reflect a national trend now present in dozens of countries.

Outside of office, an enhanced role for women in participatory budgeting, a fiscal policy increasingly in vogue worldwide, has been the main mission of the MIRA Network, a Mexican NGO focused on gender equality in budgeting. The Huairou Commission, a network of grass-roots women that has taken the lead on women’s organizing for Habitat III, wants women to be consulted at every step on government programmes such as informal-settlement upgrading.

In the run-up to Habitat III, women have organized at just about every level. Although no national or local government sponsored an official Habitat III meeting on the topic of gender, the partner organizations in the women’s constituency organized a dizzying calendar of events.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

They successfully lobbied the Habitat III Secretariat to fund an expert meeting of grass-roots women in September; UN Women hosted another such gathering on 3 June. Over the past year, four of the Urban Thinkers Campuses — global stakeholder events on issues of urban development — had an explicit gender focus.

Thanks to the efforts of their Latin American members, Habitat III was a key topic on the agenda in January at the third Ibero American Summit of Local Gender Agendas in Santiago, Chile. During major events such as the Habitat III negotiations and some of the regional meetings that preceded them, women have held daily caucuses to share information and stay on message.

All of this effort has sought to secure these priorities in Habitat III. As such, the women’s constituency has been keeping a close eye on all of the documents coming out of the New Urban Agenda — down to the number of mentions of terms such as “women and girls”. The broader effort, they say, is to “engender” the new strategy.

The New Urban Agenda’s first draft, released in early May, offered a good start, they say. For instance, the draft prominently recognizes human rights, which include the rights of women. Still, they also found that it will “need to strengthen the commitment to gender equality,” according to a statement on the document.

[See: In Habitat’s birthplace, new Vancouver Declaration emerges on gender and indigenous rights]

The ball is now in the hands of diplomats as they negotiate the New Urban Agenda for the next several months until the conference begins in Quito. There, the constituency claims to have already activated local networks of grass-roots women. If they don’t see substantive progress by the time Habitat III rolls around, their strength in numbers will surely be on display.

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