GSD Hosts United Nations Expert Meeting on Gender and Urbanization

Jun 22, 2012
UN Meeting on Gender and Urbanization

On June 11-12, the Harvard Graduate School of Design was home to thirty of the planet’s leading experts on gender and urbanization issues. The occasion was a United Nations Expert Group Meeting (EGM) entitled “Women’s Economic Empowerment: A Critical Element for Prosperous Cities.” This global gathering brought together key urban policymakers and the leadership of grassroots women’s organizations to forge a policy platform for addressing women’s economic empowerment in cities. The event was hosted by Michael Hooper, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the GSD, and convened by the United Nations Human Settlements Agency (UN-Habitat) and the Huairou Commission on Women, Homes and Community.

Opening the event, Jan Peterson, Chair of the Huairou Commision, said, “Too often women have been left out of the urban picture. We’re here to put gender on the table and ensure that women’s livelihoods are taken into account in urban planning and policy.” Likewise, Gulelat Kebede, Director of Urban Economy and Finance at UN-Habitat and head of the UN delegation at the EGM, stated, “This meeting is an excellent opportunity to bring together prominent practitioners, policymakers and academics to collaboratively think through vital gender and urban economy issues.” He also noted that “UN-Habitat is developing a new focus on urban economies due to a recognition that cities often fail to capitalize on local assets like social and human capital. To this end, it will be vital to positively influence local governments’ planning and regulatory interventions. We hope this EGM can help us identify where gaps exist and where can we add value in working on women’s economic advancement in cities.” 

The two days of discussions, deliberations and presentations were intended to prepare a policy foundation for September’s World Urban Forum (WUF) in Naples, Italy. The WUF, which is held every two years, is the world’s preeminent international forum for urban policymaking. Attendees at the GSD meeting hoped to ensure that women’s perspectives on urban growth and development will be well represented in the critical policy deliberations taking place later in the year in Naples. GSD students contributed extensively to the EGM, with fifteen students serving as volunteer organizers and translators. In addition, policy memos on the role of women in global urbanization, written by students in Michael Hooper’s Urbanization and International Development seminar, served as an input to the deliberations.

Attendees at the EGM spanned the planet geographically and represented a wide variety of institutional actors in urban planning worldwide. They included policymakers from intergovernmental organizations, such as UN-Habitat and UN Women, and grassroots leaders from virtually all major world regions. These grassroots attendees included women representatives from the People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia, Women in Cities International, the Women’s Construction Resource and Development Center in Jamaica, GROOTS International, and the Federation of Women in Municipal Governments in Latin America. The attendees also included academics working on gender and urbanization, including faculty from the GSD, Federico II University of Naples, Argentina’s National University of Cordoba and UCLA.

The atmosphere at the meeting was one of dynamic and lively dialogue. Breakout sessions involved intense discussion on a variety of themes including: employment in cities, unpaid work, land and housing, and access to essential services. Sessions mapped innovative urban practices and interventions in these focus areas. They also documented successful partnerships that can serve as models for practice on the part of the grassroots practitioners, local and national governments, and intergovernmental agencies.

Grassroots practitioners provided a valuable perspective throughout the EGM. For example, Carmen Griffiths of the Women’s Construction Resource and Development Center made a compelling presentation on women’s urban employment. Her presentation drew on extensive experience organizing women construction workers. Carmen spoke of her group’s efforts to train women as carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers and roofers and ultimately gain recognition for the role women play in shaping cities. She noted, “As a result of their construction training, women have become experts and have managed to find employment and generate sustainable incomes.” At the same time, she highlighted several challenges, including the fact that training programs are often interrupted by violence and that evaluation of the project’s success has been difficult to undertake and limited by availability of data.

The demand for data on women’s programs and for improved evaluation was also highlighted by Luvy Arcega-Villanueva of the Philippines’ GREAT Women Project, who remarked, “when we have evidence of successful participation of women we can better earmark funding to these efforts and secure support for them. More broadly, gender analysis tools need to made available to governments so they can understand what works and better deliver services to women.”

One theme that was reiterated repeatedly over the two days was the importance of recognizing the extent of women’s unpaid work in cities. As Esther Muara-Muria of GROOTS Kenya stated, “Women frequently contribute unpaid labor in the form of informal education, through collective provision of water and sanitation, and in the provision of home based care.” Her organization has fought to have women’s contributions in these areas recognized and supported. One key way of doing this has been through increasing women’s representation on decision making bodies related to education, public services and health care in cities. In the Kenyan context, Esther reported, a major advance has come through the drafting of a new constitution in which “women are guaranteed representation and can make vital contributions to important decision making institutions related to both livelihoods and land use.”

Another overriding theme of the meeting was the importance of security of tenure and the complexity of enhancing women’s access to and control over land and housing. Ezekiel Esipisu of Habitat for Humanity Africa highlighted how communities have managed to upgrade their housing in the absence of formal title. He documented how many housing financing agencies are increasingly willing to finance low income housing where communities invest sweat equity in construction, thereby demonstrating a commitment to their new home. He noted that much of the sweat equity offered in these situations is provided by women. Esipisu also remarked that, more broadly, women make up a large proportion of the clients involved in developing world housing finance transactions. For instance, he noted that “women make up 60% of our borrowers in Dar es Salaam and are excellent clients.” 

During the meeting, attendees heard from several presenters who summarized critical issues in gender and urban economic empowerment. Cathy McIlwaine, of the University of London, remarked in her presentation that “women’s issues have frequently been ignored by cities, urban planners and policymakers. In part this is due to the unpaid nature of women’s work, which is therefore undervalued.” Marty Chen of Harvard’s Kennedy School expanded on the place of women in the informal economy: “Women’s work is concentrated in precarious forms of informal employment. When you’re looking at urban work, you not only have to take a gender lens but also an informal economy lens. This is important because urban planners have simply not addressed the need to plan for the informal economy or livelihoods more broadly. The vision of a modern, world-class city and associated exclusionary urban governance is often incompatible with informal work.”

In keeping with the strategic focus of the EGM, participants spent considerable time debating the intricacies of on-the-ground interventions and how different strategies—from alternate forms of collateral to the strategic use of social networks in loan repayment—can improve women’s situation with respect to urban livelihoods. At the end of the two day meeting, participants drafted a preliminary set of recommendations for action at the World Urban Forum. These recommendations will help shape the nature of debate and deliberation in Naples and also influence the ongoing development of UN-Habitat’s gender strategy. In their closing remarks, the Huairou Commission’s Jan Peterson and UN-Habitat’s Gulelat Kebede commended the attendees’ hard work over the two intense days at Harvard and congratulated them for laying a foundation for greater inclusion of women in urban economic systems.  



Academic Programs: Urban Planning and Design

News: GSD Hosts United Nations Expert Meeting on Gender and Urbanization

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