Women and UN-HABITAT: A History

By Lee-Smith, Diana | Women & Environments International Magazine, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Women and UN-HABITAT: A History


Lee-Smith, Diana, Women & Environments International Magazine


"Over my dead body" scribbled a senior official of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the forwarding note when he received a document in 1976 suggesting that the environmental concerns and conditions of women receive attention from his agency. I know, because I had to process the note being a junior functionary of UNEP at the time. If the statute of limitations on this piece of internal UN bureaucratic information has not expired, I hope the relevant authorities feel free to sue me. As to whether the subsequent involvement of UNEP in women and environment matters, such as the massive Global Assembly on Women and Environment in 1991, actually took place over his dead body, I am not aware.

This article is about the evolution of women and habitat issues, based on my professional and personal experience. It includes an assessment of how well these are being addressed currently, in the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (Habitat). It offers a history that covers the interaction between UN-Habitat and civil society, and some other UN events and agencies, especially UNEP.

Despite the negative atmosphere this opening anecdote portrays, there were other stirrings in 1976. The first United Nations Habitat Conference in Vancouver took place that year, and was famous for the vibrant civil society Forum which accompanied it. At one of the Forum workshops, the concerns of women were highlighted and Women and Environments journal (later magazine) was born as a direct result. Habitat issues concerning women found a place in this magazine over the following years. In SINA Newsletter in 1985 it described its scope as a "feminist perspective on women and planning, design alternatives, urban projects, technology, space, nontraditional jobs, community development, nature and ecology." Thus it was thinkers and planners who were then beginning to describe the content and agenda of "women and habitat."

Indeed the debate about whether environment and habitat issues should be treated as one complex of ideas and policies has raged since that time. Not least, the debate among member states at the UN at the time of Vancouver 76 led to the creation of a separate agency from UNEP, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS). UNCHS later became the UN Habitat Programme and was located in the same place as UNEP, in Nairobi, Kenya. For many, the need for a specialized agency looking at conservation of the biosphere should not be separated from looking at the "habitat" of human beings, namely human settlements. But geopolitics of the time divided the former as the agenda of the North, looking at conservation, and the latter as the agenda of the South, focussing on poverty and urban growth.

Women's issues were not a priority to either agency at that time. They remained a special interest that was pursued by civil society, academics and lobby groups, notwithstanding the UN Decade for Women, which started in 1975, and produced the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) among other major achievements.

When the Third UN Conference on Women was held in Nairobi 1985, some officials of the UNCHS (all women) actively participated with civil society organizations in helping to articulate the issues of "women and habitat" through a series of workshops at the large NGO Forum. They were concerned that this had been a gap in the agency's programme throughout the first UN Women's Decade. A large "Women and Habitat" workshop was organized by Mazingira Institute of Nairobi, Habitat International Council (later Coalition, HIC) and the Netherlands Council of Women (part of the International Council of Women, ICW). Other workshops, out of the thousand or so held that addressed similar themes were organized by the National Council of Neighbourhood Women of USA and Match International of Canada.

Keynote papers articulating the women's perspective on the themes of the 1976 Vancouver Habitat Conference led to the structuring of issues and the resolve to create an international network, starting with the workshop participants. …

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