By Rebecca Ambrose

A lot of people assume the right to housing nowadays is a given part of life, but many societies, including in the West, still demonstrate inequality between genders in terms of access to housing, regardless of the rights given. Women’s right to housing internationally is mixed, and has a long and spotted history, with the data availability indicating figures for this important issue varying hugely from country to country.

Therefore, trying to create a timeline of women’s housing rights is almost impossible, but any attempt might start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This declaration stated that the right to adequate housing was included in the list of rights internationally recognised as accepted and applicable to all. This is a multi-faceted statement and over time it has been defined as:

  • Protection against forced evictions and the arbitrary destruction and demolition of one’s home;
  • The right to be free from arbitrary interference with one’s home, privacy and family; and
  • The right to choose one’s residence, to determine where to live and to freedom of movement.

The right to adequate housing contains certain entitlements. These entitlements include: security of tenure, housing, land and property restitution, equal and non-discriminatory access to adequate housing and participation in housing-related decision-making at the national and community levels. While this, in theory, means that women should have equal access to housing, and stability, unfortunately many societies are only catching up in relation to actually putting these rights into action, and thus, lies the timeline problem. While we have something of a starting point, every country (even states and municipalities) have interpreted and implemented this right in various ways, meaning that there are few dates where you can say each country has definitively given this right to its women.

There are many inherent societal reasons why women’s housing rights have not been implemented in the same capacity as men’s. Patriarchal systems of rule and laws are clearly going to inherently benefit males more, and for many countries the accepted standard is that while a family has a right to housing, for most of these the male is the ‘head of the family’ and therefore, the one who is with the access to the housing on his family’s behalf. Within countries, gender gaps in the incidence of property ownership are most pronounced for disadvantaged groups, that is, the rural population and the poorest quintile.

These gender gaps reflect a mixture of factors, including discriminatory laws with respect to a variety of issues; in many cases, women’s rights also change depending on whether they are single or married, as their entitlement to things may then change to a communal system, or any other which does not directly benefit her. Gender pay gaps in many countries also inhibit women from being able to buy property at the same capacity as male counterparts, due to not earning as much in similar time frames. Inheritance structures in many societies often benefit the male siblings over their sisters, furthering the divide. Furthermore, countries with more gender egalitarian legal regimes have higher levels of property ownership by married women, especially housing, suggesting that legal reforms are a potential mechanism to increase women’s property ownership.  -The right to housing and property is really only effective in the countries which are actively promoting and establishing it as the norm – plus enforcing it when it is not being adhered to.

Thankfully, in recent years, several countries have officially recognised (constitutionally and in their laws) the right for women themselves to own land and housing, as equally as men currently do, for example Namibia. The focus in these places now is to make sure that these laws are being put into effect on the ground, not just on paper. In many countries, in fact, there are laws that grant women property when public housing is granted and/or determine that, at the very least, the house be registered both in the man’s and in the woman’s name, as is the case in the General Law for Regularisation of Land in Brazil and in some regional title-deed policies in Bangladesh.

In the U.S. equal access to housing rights had been a process in the making for many decades. Their Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was meant as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, expanded on previous acts and prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion and national origin. It became known more commonly as the Fair Housing Act (of 1968), but it was not until 1974 that sex discrimination was included as a prohibited activity, so technically it was not until then that women definitively had legal housing protection.

What is more, there are examples of laws, policies and judicial decisions that both prohibit discrimination in access to housing and establish the prioritisation of women in housing policies. In Latin America, there are some examples of public policies that prioritise women’s right to housing, such as the Municipal Policy of Habitat and Housing of Quito, Ecuador; and the Five-Year Housing Plan (2005-2009) of Uruguay. In France, the housing right law establishes as a priority the attendance of groups in vulnerable situations, and thus prioritises single mothers in this regard.

A slightly different example is a country like Tajikistan, where land is not owned by any individual, but by the Government under their ‘Land Code’, “The land, its subsoil, water, air, flora and fauna and other natural resources are the exclusive property of the state, and the state guarantees their effective use for the benefit of the people”. While private land ownership for any gender is not an issue, how the land is divided out and who gets to utilise and build on it absolutely is, and women were historically impeded from doing so. An important initiative between many partners has resulted in more recent modification of several measures included in the Land Code; a notable one obliging the deeds of collective land to include the names of all members of the family, especially women. This measure, in combination with the efforts to promote women taking on land officially in their own names, with the legal help to do so, resulted in evident growth in the volume of land in the name of women, a climb of 12% up to a total of 14% in only six years. This is a testament to the fact that if a concerted effort is made to try and address gender imbalances in housing within a country, moves can be made in the right direction.

But what about those from cultural backgrounds not necessarily living in a specific country? One such example is women within the Roma community. In 2006, the European Parliament stated that the “Union and its institutions have on a number occasions expressed concern or even alarm at the situation of the Roma generally and Romani women in particular”. There were many aspects referred to at this time, but in relation to housing the EU Parliament “Urges the Member States to improve Romani housing by providing recognition under domestic law of a right to adequate housing, …[with] protection available to individuals under domestic law against forced eviction, adopting … plans for financing the improvement of living and housing conditions in districts which have a sizeable Romani population and ordering local authorities to promptly provide adequate potable water, electricity, waste removal, public transport and roads”. It is notable that such cultures are being acknowledged and their welfare promoted, but again it is hard to pinpoint how each individual country is applying this right (or otherwise).

There are many more examples like these mentioned, but it is clear that the timeline of women’s right to housing is not a straightforward one. Varying applications of the right within countries and changes in laws are heading in the right direction, but the right is by no means as ‘universal’ as it is supposed to be. Until every country’s lawmakers make the concerted effort to advocate for and enforce this right, then this timeline will never actually be finished.